Exploring Tibetan Buddhism through a foreign language?

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Exploring Tibetan Buddhism through a foreign language?

Postby Gwiwer » Tue Sep 18, 2012 9:54 pm

Would it be worth learning Russian in order to learn more about Tibetan Buddhism? I know that Tibetan Buddhism has been practiced for centuries in parts of Siberia and that Russians have had continuous contact with the peoples who practice it there since at least the early 1600's. This contact, coupled with the fact that a large chunk of the world's scientific literature either starts out in Russian or is eventually translated to it, leads me to think that learning Russian might give me access to a tremendous amount of information about Tibetan Buddhism that I wouldn't ordinarily have from sticking to only sources written in, or translated to, English. I've been considering learning a Slavic language as it is, though I was leaning more towards Polish or Ukrainian since some of my family originally came from those countries. Perhaps I should give Russian a try instead. I suppose I'm just curious to find out if anyone happens to have any insight into how helpful it might be to learn Russian. I mean, I know a little bit about the history of Buddhism in Russia, but not enough to know whether learning Russian would be all that useful in continuing to learn more about Tibetan Buddhism in particular and the various cultures of Siberia in general.
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Re: Exploring Tibetan Buddhism through a foreign language?

Postby Sherlock » Wed Sep 19, 2012 2:31 am

I know half of the Dzogchen Community of Chogyal Namkhai Norbu is based in Russia; the Mongolic Buddhist peoples there are mostly Gelugpas and apparently Shugden is quite common among them. But unless you have some other reasons to learn the language besides Buddhism (which you seem to have), you probably should just learn Tibetan.
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Re: Exploring Tibetan Buddhism through a foreign language?

Postby Gwiwer » Wed Sep 19, 2012 5:55 am

Yeah, it's kind of a tough call. Ideally, I would love to learn Tibetan, Pali, and maybe Sanskrit, but none of them really seem feasible. I've had an incredibly difficult time tracking down books about Tibetan in English and what I did find were books that were often 20+ years old and extremely poorly written to the point where I could hardly make sense of them. I've had much better luck finding books on Pali and Sanskrit, but I just can't motivate myself to learn either of those since they're dead languages without any real use beyond reading Buddhist or Hindu texts that have already been translated into English hundreds of times in the past two centuries. At least Russian is one of the most well-documented languages on Earth with an almost endless supply of textbooks, grammars, and other books and resources in English. On top of that, knowledge of Russian would give me access to a tremendous amount of information about a whole range of subjects like Buddhism, the languages and cultures of Siberia, and all sorts of other topics in addition to allowing me to learn a language spoken by almost 250 million people around the world. The only thing that bothers me about Russian is that, outside of my interest in Buddhism and Siberia, I have no other meaningful connection to Russia or the Russian language. If I'm going to put in the effort to learn a Slavic language, I'd kind of prefer it to be Polish or Ukrainian since I have a more meaningful connection to those cultures because of my family's history. With that said though, the Slavic languages are more closely related to each other than most other language families and share a great deal in common with each other in terms of grammar, vocabulary, and so forth so that learning Russian would probably help me quite a bit down the road should I decide to pick up Ukrainian or Polish at a later date. Ukrainian is particularly close to Russian and some sentences are almost exactly identical other than a few minor changes which are quite regular and easy to anticipate if you understand both languages and how they've diverged from one another over time. So, I don't know. Sometimes I think about learning Russian and feel like it's obviously something I should try to do and other times I think about it and it sort of feels like a waste of time that could be better spent learning a language I'm a little less ambivalent about. I think if I were offered one super power, it would be the ability to understand every language that's ever existed. I'm endlessly fascinated by languages, but, alas, I haven't had much luck becoming proficient in any of them except English and French so far. :(
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Re: Exploring Tibetan Buddhism through a foreign language?

Postby Astus » Wed Sep 19, 2012 11:14 am

Russian seems like a good choice to have access to materials less known among Western scholars. On the other hand, the traditionally Buddhist people in the Russian Federation speak different languages, although they also know Russian. But if your goal is to have access to a large amount of Buddhist academic works, Chinese or Japanese sounds like a better choice, but perhaps less exotic in the area of Buddhist studies.

Check out this Russian language Buddhist forum: Буддийский форум (you can even find Buddhist books in Russian there).
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Re: Exploring Tibetan Buddhism through a foreign language?

Postby zerwe » Wed Sep 19, 2012 3:05 pm

Tibetan or Nepalese dialects would be the obvious choice.
Beside that, IMO, the closest you are going to get to learning a language
to deepen your knowledge/understanding of Tibetan Buddhism is to study Mongolian.
There actually are some opportunities with a dharma focus for people to teach english in Mongolia.
These opportunities are through schools that teach a program known as English for Special Purposes
and all that is required is that one possess an accredited degree of some sort.


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Last edited by zerwe on Wed Sep 19, 2012 3:14 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Exploring Tibetan Buddhism through a foreign language?

Postby zerwe » Wed Sep 19, 2012 3:12 pm

BTW, the FPMT have a fairly established presence in Mongolia. So, not all the Gelugpa in Mongolia propitiate "who is
not to be named."

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Re: Exploring Tibetan Buddhism through a foreign language?

Postby Indrajala » Wed Sep 19, 2012 4:05 pm

Astus wrote:Russian seems like a good choice to have access to materials less known among Western scholars. On the other hand, the traditionally Buddhist people in the Russian Federation speak different languages, although they also know Russian. But if your goal is to have access to a large amount of Buddhist academic works, Chinese or Japanese sounds like a better choice, but perhaps less exotic in the area of Buddhist studies.

Check out this Russian language Buddhist forum: Буддийский форум (you can even find Buddhist books in Russian there).


Japanese has enormous amounts of research material. It might take longer to learn if you're not familiar with Chinese characters, but they've been doing Buddhology since the 19th century and have dumped a lot of time and resources into that field. A lot of Chinese Buddhist scholars got their footing in modern academia in Japan.
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Re: Exploring Tibetan Buddhism through a foreign language?

Postby udawa » Wed Sep 19, 2012 4:28 pm

Before you jump into Russian, have you tried Stephen Hodge's introduction to classical Tibetan?
It's inexpensive and covers a lot of ground, with exercises taken from standard Tibetan Buddhist texts.
Not so easy if you don't have a natural gift for languages, but I don't think any of the alternatives are any easier. And this one is at least written in reasonably clear English English.

http://www.wisdom-books.com/ProductDetail.asp?PID=12330

Author(s) : Hodge, Stephen
Publishers Price : £16.99
Wisdom Price : £11.89(save 30%)
Availability : Usually available in 7 day(s)
ISBN : 9745240397
EAN : 9789745240391
Cover : Paperback
Pages : 200
Size : 246 x 176mm
Publisher : Orchid Press
Published : 2003
Category : Tibetan Language
Synopsis:
New edition. A handbook for the study of classical Tibetan, aiming to provide a rapid introducton to the main elements of the language, enabling the student to begin reading Tibetan Buddhist works in the original. It includes a grammar illustrated with sentences from the sutras and tantras, and a reader containing a selection of passages from a variety of texts.

Classical Tibetan, with origins dating to the ninth century, is the script found in an immense corpus of surviving Tibetan texts, mostly of Buddhist content, and native Tibetans still employ this language to this day, when writing on religious, medical, or historical subjects.

While designed for guided study, the material will also be of use to those who tackle the language on their own. Steady study should result in an understanding of msot grammatical features and allow the student to read the simpler prose texts.
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Re: Exploring Tibetan Buddhism through a foreign language?

Postby conebeckham » Wed Sep 19, 2012 5:50 pm

You should learn Tibetan. There is far more primary source material about Tibetan Buddhism in Tibetan, than in any other language, after all. :rolling:

I doubt there's much primary source material in Russian. Or Mongolian. Or....well, anything--even Sanskrit and Pali!
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Re: Exploring Tibetan Buddhism through a foreign language?

Postby Gwiwer » Wed Sep 19, 2012 9:13 pm

My interest in Buddhism first led me to Zen, so I spent a while studying Chinese and Japanese. I quickly discovered my religious background inclined me more towards Vajrayana though. I was raised in the Ukrainian Catholic church which is essentially Catholicism heavily influenced by Ukrainian Orthodox practices. From there, I eventually became fully Orthodox until I lost interest in Christianity. After that, I went to neopaganism for a time before taking an interest in Hinduism. My discomfort with some of the earlier texts of Hinduism eventually pushed me towards Shamanism, primarily of the Siberian, Mongolian, and Turkish kinds. That eventually led me to Taoism. It was at that point when I became exposed to Buddhism and really took a liking to it. From there, I tried Zen out for a while until I discovered Vajrayana and was drawn to it because it incorporates many shamanistic and mystical practices that connected with my interests in things like paganism, shamanism, and Hinduism. I gave the Chinese and Japanese Vajrayana traditions a go for a while until I found Tibetan Buddhism and switched over to that primarily because I really liked the fact that gender equality played a much larger role in Tibetan Buddhist beliefs while the Chinese and Japanese traditions took a far more masculine centered view. The Tibetan devotion to the goddess Tara really sold me on Tibetan Buddhism and I quickly became rather fond of her. So, that's pretty much how I ended up where I'm at. I suppose it's a little unconventional since I see a lot of people who dislike Tibetan Buddhism because of its heavy emphasis on shamanistic practices, but those are actually what ended up drawing me to it.

I actually studied Mongolian for a little while back in my Shamanism days before I became interested in Buddhism, but eventually gave it up because I didn't have too much of an incentive to learn it. Now that I think about it, maybe it would be worth giving it another try. It was definitely a complicated language, but the grammar seemed fairly regular and logical so the challenge may prove surmountable. I'll have to pull out the book I was using back then and give it another shot.

I would love to learn some of the languages of Siberia, but it's proving almost impossible to find any books on them not written in Russian. That's actually another reason why I'm interested in learning Russian. I'd really love to read those books. Speaking with a few people from Russia, it seems that almost all of the inhabitants of Siberia now speak Russian and the native languages are confined mostly to very rural villages and, even then, it's usually only older people who still use them as most younger people just learn Russian. That's unfortunate, but to be expected, I suppose.

Learning Tibetan remains a long term goal for me. I definitely would like to learn it eventually. For now though, I probably will have to hold off on that until I either find a very good teacher or manage to accumulate some better books on the subject. I'm going to keep an eye out and try to collect as many books on Tibetan as I can. I hear the Colloquial book series will be releasing Colloquial Tibetan some time next year. Assuming I could manage to get a copy and the accompanying audio, that may be a perfect way to start off learning the language for me. the Colloquial books are a little hit or miss because they usually tend to be written in a very basic way that doesn't cover anything in much depth, but, for a language like Tibetan, that may actually work out for the best since it'll ease me into the language in a relatively painless way and I could later build on that with more comprehensive material.

At the moment, I'm thinking I might study Mongolian and a bit of Russian and see how that works out. Then, once I've built up a collection of Tibetan resources, I could study that as well. That should give me a nice broad overview of Tibetan Buddhism as it exists in Russia, Mongolia, Tibet, and India. It'll be nice to get a wider perspective on the religion than just the one put forward by the Dalai Lama and the few other Tibetan Buddhists who have become prominent in the west. Not, of course, to say that there's anything wrong with the Dalai Lama and such. Just that it'll be interesting to get a better feel for the depth and diversity that I'm sure exists in the religion amongst the various peoples and cultures who practice it.
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Re: Exploring Tibetan Buddhism through a foreign language?

Postby conebeckham » Wed Sep 19, 2012 10:05 pm

Many Chinese Buddhists have great devotion for Kwan Yin, who is female. I'm not sure Tibetan Buddhism is more, or less, "gender equal" than the Chinese or Japanese forms...

If you want to practice Tibetan Buddhism, and not study it in an "academic" context, as a "quasi-(or complete) outsider," quite frankly, studying Russian, or Mongolian, is a waste of time.

If you want to PRACTICE, studying Tibetan language is the thing that will open the most doors for you, and will support and inspire your practice.

But everyone has their own proclivities, I suppose.
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Re: Exploring Tibetan Buddhism through a foreign language?

Postby Gwiwer » Wed Sep 19, 2012 11:17 pm

I suppose it is true that Guanyin serves a very similar role in Chinese and Japanese Mahayana Buddhism as Tara serves in Tibetan Buddhism, so I suppose it is a little unfair to not take that into account. I think what bothers me about Chinese and Japanese approaches to Buddhism is that they're heavily colored by Taoism which strongly emphasizes rigid gender roles of the ideal feminine as passive and weak and the ideal masculine as active and strong and this has a tremendous amount of influence on Japanese and, especially, Chinese culture even in relation to non-Taoist religions like Buddhism, Confucianism, Chinese traditional religion, and Shinto. This isn't the case in Tibetan culture which has been influenced very little by Taoism so that there's no cultural taboo against depicting Tara as both strong and active in addition of passive and compassionate. In fact, her very origin story serves as an explicit denunciation of the concept of rigid gender roles.

As far as the primary texts of Tibetan Buddhism go, it's obvious that one would be best served by learning Tibetan if your desire is to read, study, and understand those texts. This doesn't really impact my decision much though as those texts aren't my main concern. Those texts are so well known in the west that they've been translated and re-translated probably hundreds of times into English in the past two centuries. While I wish I could read them in the original Tibetan, I'm more than happy to make do with the English translations for now and have no reason to mistrust them or think they are fundamentally lacking somehow. What I fear I don't have a lot of access to as an English speaker is the wider cultural works that might not be so well known to people outside of Tibet, India, Mongolia, and Russia. I imagine there are a tremendous amount of books, folk stories, songs, poems, scriptural commentaries, philosophical works, academic studies, and other writings that, while not being an integral part of the religion, still offer significant insight into the cultural expression of the religion and those who practice it. It is those kinds of secondary sources that I'm hoping to gain better access to and I'm not sure that sticking strictly to English sources is going to give me that kind of access. While the primary texts of Tibetan Buddhism are well known in the west, study of the secondary materials seems, at least to my novice view, to largely be in its infancy. The situation has been getting better in the last 30 or so years as eastern religions have become very popular in western culture, but I'm not sure the academic world, at least in the Anglosphere, has quite caught up with pop culture in that regard just yet. As such, I feel I might be better served looking to places like Tibet, India, Mongolia, and Russia where these traditions are native to varying degrees and, thus, much more well known and studied both by outside academics and native practitioners.
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Re: Exploring Tibetan Buddhism through a foreign language?

Postby Yudron » Wed Sep 19, 2012 11:32 pm

Just to second Cone: If you want to practice Tibetan Buddhism you will be constantly up to your eyeballs in Tibetan language. Are you really going to recite texts in Tibetan--or from Tibetan--every day for the rest of your life and study Russian or Mongolian and not Tibetan? Spock says, with one eyebrow raised, "highly illogical."

You can start learning Tibetan from the Tibetan Language Institute http://www.tibetanlanguage.org/, or at classes at your Dharma Center, or through immersion in a Tibetan community (Dharamsala, Darjeeling, Boudha/Kathmandu), by marrying a Tibetan, or many other ways. Lots of people do. Tibetan is a much simpler language than English.

There are modern books out, such as the Manual for Standard Tibetan, but few people are going to be able to sit down and learn a language from a book. If you like working in isolation you might get farther with http://www.shambhala.com/fluent-tibetan.html that gives you mp3 along with the written course--but it is pretty academically oriented and make things more difficult than most of us need.
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Re: Exploring Tibetan Buddhism through a foreign language?

Postby Yudron » Thu Sep 20, 2012 12:07 am

Gwiwer wrote:As far as the primary texts of Tibetan Buddhism go, it's obvious that one would be best served by learning Tibetan if your desire is to read, study, and understand those texts. This doesn't really impact my decision much though as those texts aren't my main concern. Those texts are so well known in the west that they've been translated and re-translated probably hundreds of times into English in the past two centuries. While I wish I could read them in the original Tibetan, I'm more than happy to make do with the English translations for now and have no reason to mistrust them or think they are fundamentally lacking somehow.


Only a tiny percentage of the Tibetan Buddhist literature has been translated into English. I don't know what primary texts of Tibetan Buddhism you are referring to that have been translated and re-translated hundreds of times over two hundred years. Only a handful of people had even been to Tibet 200 years ago. As far as translators who possess even the rudiments of enough knowledge of the language and the religion to properly translate these texts, these have emerged in the last 50 or 60 years. As far as I know, really good translations have come about only in the last 20 years. A few books (biographies and songs of the saints mainly) have been translated a few times now.

Each of the many surviving traditions of Tibet (Gelug, Sakya, Bon, Jonang, the multiple schools of the Kagyu, and the countless streams of Nyingma terma traditions) have their own core texts unique to their tradition. I don't know if any of the leading Tibetan lamas in the West would say they are satisfied that the core texts of their tradition have been completely and satisfactorily translated into English. Mine certainly would not.

There are perhaps a couple of dozen scholar-translators alive who can have reached a point in their lives where they can do excellent translations for advanced texts. They are usually in their 50's, 60's and 70's and started out learning in their youth. They are "booked up" with translation projects for the rest of their expected lifespan. They often live in trailers, having sacrificed accruing material wealth in their working lives to instead serve the Dharma selflessly for decades.
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Re: Exploring Tibetan Buddhism through a foreign language?

Postby Gwiwer » Thu Sep 20, 2012 6:17 pm

I have Fluent Tibetan vol. 1 and the audio, but it's an extremely difficult book to make sense of on your own. If used with a teacher, or in conjunction with other books, it might be more useful. It's laid out in a very illogical way and doesn't do a very good job of explaining grammar, syntax, or vocabulary. I find it more confusing than helpful and I suspect much of my phobia about learning Tibetan comes from my struggles with working my way through that book.

When I talk of the primary texts of Tibetan Buddhism, I am referring to the sutras important to Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism along with the core texts contained within the Tibetan Buddhist cannon common to every tradition and, to a lesser extent, supplemental texts such as The Liberation Through Hearing During The Intermediate State. Most of those texts have been translated well enough into English for my purposes at the present time. After all, I'm merely skimming the surface of the religion and feeling out whether it's right for me. I only started learning about Buddhism about 8 months ago and didn't start learning about Tibetan Buddhism until about 3 or 4 months ago. I'm not even sure at the present time that it's going to be a religion I will stick with. I'm quite fond of it now, but I've only been learning about it for a relatively short while. It's going to be a while yet before I'm at a point where I'm committing myself to exploring it an any real depth and tackling any of the more advanced aspects of it. At this stage, I'm more inclined to wade through the shallow end and get a general overview of the religion and part of that process involves learning about the different cultures which practice it. Anything beyond that would likely be way over my head. I'm just looking to get a good feel for it before I dive in deeper. For the time being, I am practicing the religion, but only in a very minimal way. When, or if, I feel comfortable with the religion in general, then I will get to work on learning all of the infinite details and complexities lying under the surface. Until then, I'm just taking things slow and not rushing anything. Learning about Tibetan Buddhism in particular, and Buddhism in general, has proven to be a very rewarding experience so far, but that definitely doesn't mean I'm ready to commit to anything just yet. My desire to learn and grow will, for now, remain tempered by my desire to remain free and open to whatever possibilities the future may hold. One thing I love about Buddhism is that it has a long history of skepticism and cautious inquiry dating all of the way back to the Buddha himself. As such, I'm not getting myself in too deep because I really don't know what the future will hold. A year from now I might be practicing Tibetan Buddhism, or Zen, or Theravada, or Pure Land Buddhism, or maybe an entirely different religion altogether. Until I get a better idea of where I'm heading with this, I'm trying to keep my options open and not get myself in too deep. That's one of the advantages of learning a language like Russian or Japanese over Tibetan. If I eventually decide Tibetan Buddhism isn't right for me, I could use my knowledge of that language for other purposes, but I can't really think of any practical purposes Tibetan would serve me other than having knowledge of a fairly interesting and rare language.
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Re: Exploring Tibetan Buddhism through a foreign language?

Postby conebeckham » Thu Sep 20, 2012 7:58 pm

Hi, Gwiwer-

Okay, that last post puts things in perspective a bit.

Based on those comments, I'd say don't worry at all about any foreign language, if you're unsure of whether Tibetan Buddhism is a path for you. There is a huge amount of material in English that addresses the "Shallow End," so to speak, much of it is quite good. Some if it is somewhat......shallow.

I recommend books published by Snow Lion (now owned by Shambhala), and by Wisdom Publications...also much of Shambhala, though their base is somewhat broader.

I can tell you that, although there have been huge leaps in the quality and volume of Primary Source Translations being published in the last twenty years, largely due to a small number of translators and the efforts of (primarily) Snow Lion Publications, the tip of the iceberg has only been touched at this point. But there is enough material in English, at this point, to keep anyone busy for years.

"Fluent Tibetan" is good--it has nice materials, but you should know that it deals with spoken, modern Tibetan, which is quite a bit different from the "Classical Literary Tibetan" you'll find in the vast majority of primary sources.
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Re: Exploring Tibetan Buddhism through a foreign language?

Postby Yudron » Thu Sep 20, 2012 8:53 pm

Gwiwer wrote:One thing I love about Buddhism is that it has a long history of skepticism and cautious inquiry dating all of the way back to the Buddha himself. As such, I'm not getting myself in too deep because I really don't know what the future will hold. A year from now I might be practicing Tibetan Buddhism, or Zen, or Theravada, or Pure Land Buddhism, or maybe an entirely different religion altogether. Until I get a better idea of where I'm heading with this, I'm trying to keep my options open and not get myself in too deep. That's one of the advantages of learning a language like Russian or Japanese over Tibetan. If I eventually decide Tibetan Buddhism isn't right for me, I could use my knowledge of that language for other purposes, but I can't really think of any practical purposes Tibetan would serve me other than having knowledge of a fairly interesting and rare language.


Okey dokey. Pema Chodron's books in English are really terrific and accessible.

Personally, I found it useful to go to various Buddhist centers and find out how it felt for me to be there in real life. I, too, find patriarchal religions distasteful. I explored world religions, as you have done, for a non-patriarchal religion where women adepts are held up as role models, the female form is used in religious imagery, and so forth. I ran across Yeshe Tsogyal's spiritual biography in a bookstore, and it was amazing. I looked at thankas of Tara... wow! Then I went to see Khandro Rinpoche at a retreat center in Vermont and heard her talk and learned to meditate. The experience of stepping outside my worldview, outside my comfort zone, just for a couple of days, really shook up my world.

It took a couple of years after that for my to sit down and have a talk with myself. "Listen, self, what is it you are looking for?" You want to explore an authentic wisdom lineage based on compassion in which to explore via personal practice, all the deeper question you have about the nature of reality, and evolve to a higher level of wisdom and understanding. Will you ever find such a tradition that is completely non-patriarchal in this world? You're in your 30's, who much longer are you going to wait to commit to a path so that you can take it to it's depth? You only have so many years left!"

I decided the Nyingma or Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism best met my criteria, because they had female adepts in the their lineage tree, and current female masters (and I did not choose a female teacher and my meditation master, just knowing they were there was good enough for me). You might look in to the Shangpa Kagyu tradition of the Kagyu, and the Nyingma tradition, and then do your research about specific lineage masters reputation, then check them out. The Gelugpa and Sakyas tend to be more monastic and intellectual in focus, of course there is always Jetsun Kusho-la, who -- as a Sakya leader-- is the highest ranking woman in the traditional Tibetan hierarchy.

If you can afford to go to Tara Mandala in the U.S. (Pagosa Springs, CO) I think you will enjoy it. Unfortunately, they have to charge a lot to keep the place going.

Good luck! This is a precious sacred exploration. :applause:
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Re: Exploring Tibetan Buddhism through a foreign language?

Postby lobster » Sat Sep 29, 2012 7:11 am

I'm endlessly fascinated by languages


Hi and high (traditional pastafarian greeting) :smile:

As you probably know the dharma can be expressed in mudra,
dance, the language of mandala, stupa and other designs
and even non verbally.

Bodhidharma spoke ant (I speak a few 'words'), plants too have language,
in fact everything is an expression of its inner nature . . .

Anyone just thought I would offer a little gibberish . . . :rolleye:
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