Question: Khenchen Rinpoche, would you tell us about your training?
Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche: I was born in eastern Tibet. When I was four years old I began to learn how to read. In Tibet it was not like here — there were no kindergartens or preschools. Instead, we would go to a master who had only a few students. I had a master and other teachers as well, and sometimes my parents would teach me. As children we did not have the number of toys that you have here. We had a few toys, but we really did not have time to play with them. My time was spent studying. In Tibet your thoughts were your toys.
Learning to read Tibetan was considered very important, so we learned to read very quickly. We learned reading in three stages: alphabet, pronunciation, and spelling. After that came formal reading and the study of grammar. I also had to write in Sanskrit, using the ancient Sanskrit letters, which are different from those used now. When I was about seven years old I started to learn and memorize certain rituals. In Tibet we memorized the words and the meaning of many texts, which we had to repeat to the master. We also studied history and the biographies of Buddha Shakyamuni and Guru Padmasambhava.
I did that until age twelve, when I went to a large monastic university, where we learned the five major sciences and the five minor sciences. First, we studied the early Theravadin teachings, which were brought to Tibet in about the eighth century, and then the Mahayana teachings, and later, the Vajrayana and Dzogchen. I also learned astrology, medicine, art, and geometry. I studied there for about ten years, until I was twenty-one.
When I got to India I stayed in a refugee camp where I taught the children. In 1965 His Holiness the Dalai Lama called together the refugee Tibetan scholars and masters to ask us to keep alive the lineages and culture of Tibet. His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche asked me to attend, so I went. The conference lasted for about a year, with seventy-five great masters and scholars in attendance. That was in 1965 and 1966.
In 1967 the Indian government helped to open the Institute of Tibetan Studies, which is dedicated to saving the culture and knowledge of the Tibetan people. The Indian government helped His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche to start the Nyingmapa Studies Department at the Institute, and His Holiness asked me to teach there. From 1967 to 1983 I taught and helped organize that department at the Central Institute of Tibetan Higher Studies. When we started, I was head of the department and the only person teaching Nyingma Studies. I had many responsibilities, including teaching about twelve classes every day.
I first came to the United States in 1980, and came back again in 1983. Since then, I have been teaching in North America as well as in Europe and Australia. This is a brief account of my training.
Question: At what age do people begin meditating in Tibet?
Answer: In the Nyingma lineage in Tibet, the students started meditating at about age twelve, at the same time they began to learn the major sciences. It was only after I arrived in India in 1961 that my personal meditation practice developed. Sometimes in India I practiced for periods of two or three months. In 1966 or 1967 I had the opportunity to go to the mountains for my longest retreat of five months.
When I began studying with my master at the age of five, I saw him practicing in his meditation box. I was very small and did not know exactly what he was doing, but I was very interested. In the Tibetan tradition people often practice in wooden meditation boxes, which have backrests so that the practitioners can lean their heads back. I would stand on the porch and watch my teacher through the window. Since I did not have a beautiful box, I gathered some stones and tree limbs and made a crude box to sit in. I really did not know about meditation; I wanted to imitate my master.
Ven. Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche
The Buddhist Path
Copyright © Padmasambhava Buddhist Center at Padma Samye Ling. All rights reserved.