The Right Thing To Do
by Zak Kearns
Early last June, my girlfriend Lea and I made an unusual choice. We decided that after graduating from Stanford University on the 15th of that month, we would drop everything and attend a six-month internship in Tibetan Buddhist studies.
Believe me, this was not an easy thing to do. Many family members thought we were crazy. Not in the daring, edgy sense of the word they literally believed we were insane. Our friends, for the most part, professed to admire us for doing something so out of the ordinary, but their eyes generally betrayed the fact that they too thought we were nuts. We couldn’t blame them; we had no money, no health insurance, no jobs and no real plan for how to get any of these things once the program finished.
So why on earth did we give up, however temporarily, what would have been well paying jobs and respectable, comfortable lives for an unheated 8’x12’ cabin in the middle of an Oregon coastal rainforest? Why were we voluntarily submitting to 16 hours of scheduled activity a day for six straight months, without so much as a single weekend off?
For such a difficult choice, the answer was exceedingly simple: we had to follow our hearts and do what we thought was right. Even if that meant spending every dime we had and dealing with the considerable fallout from such an unorthodox move.
And we knew, deep down somewhere, that studying for six intense months with Dzogchen Khenpo Chöga Rinpoche, a renowned scholar and master from the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, was the right thing to do. We weren’t sure exactly why, but we were pretty confident that it was. I had been a student of Khenpo Chöga’s for a few years and had learned enough from and about him to know that time spent under his tutelage was always time well spent, and although Lea had only met him once before, she had much the same impression. So we combined intuition with good intention and made what we thought was the best decision. We pulled the trigger and left for Oregon.
The word “retreat” gets thrown around a lot in Buddhist circles, which I think is terribly unfortunate. “Retreat” conjures images of relaxing mountain getaways, complete with massages and mud baths. After six months on one of these things, I am here to tell you that a real retreat is nothing at all like this.
Make no mistake, we really did enjoy (almost) every minute we spent at the internship. But, of all the descriptive words that come to mind when thinking of our experiences, “comfortable” and “relaxing” are most definitely not among them. It was very hot in the summer, and very cold in the winter. There were flies everywhere. We got little sleep, and took fewer showers. There was no privacy to be found. Ever. The food was vegetarian. We spent an average of six hours in the classroom and three hours practicing every single day. We did seemingly endless construction to improve the center. There were about 15 people per toilet.
This was no vacation. It was, however, an incredible and life changing experience. And to be honest, many of the most positive changes came directly from these difficulties.
Although living in such close quarters with the other 45 participants at first had us lamenting an unbearable lack of privacy, we ended up forging lasting friendships. We met a Tibetan student from India, a Chinese professor of political science, a classical guitarist from Mexico, a girl from Boise, Idaho who skipped half of her senior year of high school to attend (don’t worry, she still graduated on time) and a Finnish Olympic cross-country ski coach, among many others.
That vegetarian food that at first was so foreign to the palate actually helped us lose a lot of weight. The flies increased our patience immeasurably. All the work we did to improve the grounds certainly beefed up our construction résumés. The intense heat and cold showed us that we don’t always need to be comfortable to be happy. We have yet, however, to discover the benefits of having so few toilets.
Of course, given my academic and personal interest in Tibetan Buddhism, the highlight of the program was the massive amount of time spent in the classroom, listening to and asking questions of our over-qualified instructor. It was truly an honor and a privilege to receive such detailed and profound teachings.
So my advice to anyone out there is this: when faced with an opportunity to do something that seems to you important and potentially life changing, follow your heart and do what you know, deep down, is right. It will probably be difficult, but if your intention is good and your reasons strong, you will not regret it. I know Lea and I didn’t.
And, if you think you just might be crazy enough to do something like we did, you’re in luck: Khenpo Chöga is offering a three-month program this summer. See www.dzogchenlineage.org for details.