Friday, May 11, 2007

Don't Mess with a Lama

So I ran across this online, while searching for keywords like zen and lama and west. Funny insight.- DN

Lama in the Hood:

An Interview with Pema Jones Rinpoche

By Chris Helm

We're in a grimy McDonald’s in Wyoming, eating Quarter Pounders with Cheese. Rinpoche, "precious one" in Tibetan, is sipping his chocolate shake. Pema’s his name, actually it’s Pema Jones, and he wears baggy jeans, an untucked red lumberjack shirt and funky high top tennis shoes with a built in pump, flashing lights (currently in the off position), and for all I know, a microwave oven for high-fat junk food snacks. Somewhere in all those baggy clothes is a thirteen year old Tibetan boy, born in India to his Tibetan mother and American father, raised until he was seven in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery and transplanted here in red neck central.

At thirteen, Rinpoche is the youngest Buddhist teacher in the country. He’s a well kept secret for several reasons, some of which have to do with his unorthodox style but mostly because his protective mother wants it that way. There also isn’t much need for teachers of Tibetan Buddhism in Wyoming.

His sister Trudy is also here with us. She’s a strikingly beautiful and extremely intelligent nineteen year old with an interest in American history and concert piano. Trudy will be attending Stanford next fall, but now she’s performing the job she’s had for the last five years, attendant to Pema. She takes his phone calls, schedules his appointments with students and acts as his chaperon and personal secretary. She also keeps score at his Little League games.

Rinpoche has a .435 batting average - not bad for a short kid, incredible for a pitcher and probably a record for an incarnate lama. My mind strains at the thought of his next incarnation trying to pick the correct Louisville Slugger along with prayer beads and robes. Would the little tyke choose the wood or the aluminum? Would past life knowledge include Earned Run Average stats and the ability to throw a knuckle ball? I flip on the tape recorder, ease into some small talk about the upcoming Super Bowl (he’s a Stealers fan) and drift into the first question.

CyberSangha: It must be hard enough to be a thirteen year old boy in American, not to mention a Tibetan lama. How do your friends and family treat your connection with the Dharma?

Pema: It’s kind of weird. My brothers, I have two older ones, tease me about it. They call me shrimpoche. My sister is nice and even helps me by taking my phone calls when I’m at school and scheduling interviews with my students. The kids at school don’t know I’m a lama, I would never tell them.

CyberSangha: Why wouldn’t you tell them you’re a lama?

Pema: I get dissed enough as it is just being Asian. They call me names like nip and gook. It’s not like when I was growing up in India. Everyone here in Wyoming is white. I consider it a good day when some goof in a pickup truck doesn’t try to run me over. Is my mom going to read this?

CyberSangha: Yes, we need to show her the interview when we’re finished. Is that a problem?

Pema: No, but there’s stuff I won’t talk about - I don’t want my mom to get mad. She’s cool but she’s not too happy with me teaching. My dad convinced her, so I want to keep things cool.

CyberSangha: That’s fine. Does your mom disapprove of your teaching?

Pema: No, not really. I don’t think she cares much about Buddhism any more. When she was in Tibet she made offerings to the protection gods, but it never stopped the Chinese. So she stopped making offerings. Then she put all her faith in Buddhism, but her friends and relatives were killed anyway and everyone kept suffering. So now she doesn’t really have much faith in religion. That’s just what I figured out. My dad's an American. He teaches chemistry at a junior college.

CyberSangha: What’s your position on that? How would you deal with people trying to hurt you?

Pema: That’s the way it is around here! It’s pretty safe, but us Asians need to stick together. Some of my best friends in our gang are Chinese. It’s strange to have Chinese friends when your family has been treated so badly by the Chinese, but this is America, I gotta live here with my own karma. Some skinhead doesn’t care whether I’m Tibetan or Chinese. He just wants to stomp my head.

CyberSangha: You’re in a gang!?

Pema: It’s just for protection. We need to stick together. It’s like if a guy threatens one of us, there’s nothing we can do by ourselves, but by getting a bunch of us together, we can defend ourselves. We don’t have guns or nothing, and we don’t do drugs or rob people.

CyberSangha: Have you ever gotten into trouble?

Pema: No, but my brother got picked up by the cops for beating up this kid who dissed my sister. Can we talk about something else?

CyberSangha: Sure. Do you like your students?

Pema: Yeah, they’re alright. kind of funny.

CyberSangha: In what way?

Pema: Well, it’s like they say they come for the teachings, but when they get into the interview room, they talk about other stuff.

CyberSangha: What other stuff?

Pema: They mainly talk about the opposite sex. Men talk about problems with their wives and women talk about their husbands and boyfriends. I don’t get it. It’s like I have little enough time as it is with school and little league and my chores and they want me to be a shrink or something. And I’m only 13! I mean, I’ve got girlfriends and all, but what do I know about relationships?

CyberSangha: So what do you tell them?

Pema: I talked to my dad about it and he gave me a stack of business cards from one of his friends, a psychologist. I just hand them one of the cards and ask them about their practice. I put my name on the back of the card and whenever he gets a new client he takes me and my brothers and sister to Dairy Queen. It’s cool. Buddhism is no big deal; it]s like being a doctor. There’s suffering, you diagnose it, give someone a prescription and hope they go to the drug store. No one in America wants to go to the store though. They all want to be pharmacists and sit around discussing different types of medicine. What’s with that? Take some medicine and come back next week. I mean don’t get me wrong, Buddhism is choice.

CyberSangha: So you’re a fully qualified to teach?

Pema: Sure. I mostly teach Tonglen, giving and receiving. It’s what I think works best at times when people are trying to kill you or too many changes are happening at once, which seems to be the case in this country. You’re basically a giant filter, like on an air conditioner. You suck in the bad air and breathe out the pure air. I see myself like an air conditioning repair dude. I teach people how to filter and cool things down.

CyberSangha: So if you can cool things down, why do you need to be in a gang?

Pema: Is this like one of those Zen riddles? It/s a samsara and nirvana thing. Yeah, some guy just dissed me and I tell myself that he really doesn’t exist separate from me. You know? It’s like he’s dissing himself. That works fine. But what happens when he stops talking and starts beating on me? You need to be able to take care of yourself so you don’t get killed. We live in samsara and spacing out about nirvana doesn’t help anyone. It’s like Kane in Kung-Fu. You take a Dharma master like Kane and you put him in the Old West. The result is predictable. He tries to be nonviolent and everyone wants his ass. That’s how I see myself. I’m nonviolent all the way, sometimes people just need to be reminded that they’re actually hitting themselves.

CyberSangha: Don’t you see any contradictions in that? The Dalai Lama, for example, constantly teaches non-violence, despite being terribly oppressed all his life.

Pema: (laughing) Oh yeah, right. The Dalai Lama is an awesome old dude and a killer teacher. But he’s got like a dozen bodyguards around him when he’s travelling. What do you think would happen if some butthead pulls a gun on His Holiness? Do you think those dozen bodyguards will practice non-violence, or shoot the guy in the arm or bust some karate move on him? No way man, a bodyguard sees this dweeb with a gun and he’s gonna pop a cap in his ass.

CyberSangha: Do you want to continue being a teacher when you grow up?

Pema: No way, there’s too much suffering and it’s too tough to absorb it all. Tonglen and practice go only so far for a teacher. It’s really not fair what teachers have to do. It's like they have to be bodyguards for their students. They've got to take the bullet when things go down. They sacrifice their lives to help people. That’s one reason why so many teachers die of cancer. It’s too rough and I’m definitely not ready. My teacher, Uncle Norbu, says my attitude will change when I get older, but I don’t think so. I want to play pro ball. I want to be in The Show. On the field is the only place where I get respect for what I do and not for who I am. When I’m on the field, and I’m doing well, they see me as a part of their team. I want to be the first Tibetan in the major leagues. America can grow its own lamas, they don't need Tibetans.

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