Emory Report
July 23, 2007
Volume 59, Number 35

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July 23, 2007
A different state of mind

by carol clark

"Karma is mysterious. You just go with it,” says Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, describing his journey from a Himalayan hamlet to Atlanta, where he is a senior lecturer in Emory’s Department of Religion and director of the Emory-Tibet Partnership.

Negi was born in the Kinnaur Valley, in a district of northern India that borders Tibet. His home village, Ribba, is so remote that it takes a full day, driving along a treacherous mountain road, to reach the nearest town. Monsoon rains and heavy snows close the road for part of the year, cutting the village off completely.

Ribba basks in the reflected radiance of the sheer face of Kinnaur Kailash, a 6,000-meter Himalayan peak. “Growing up, I never thought of it as a beautiful place,” Negi says. “It was only much later, after spending several years down on the plains and going back, that I realized how beautiful it is. Being up in the mountains puts you in a different state of mind.”

Many legends swirl around Kinnaur Kailash. “In the valley, it’s quite common to hear people speak of music coming from the mountain,” Negi says. “Music produced not by humans, but by the divine dwellers of the sacred mountain. It is the indigenous belief that Kinnaur Kailash is the realm of the gods and not suitable for ordinary humans to walk on. You hear about Japanese trekking parties that spend months trying to climb it, but the weather gets so agitated they can’t make it to the peak. Local people believe that this turbulent weather is caused by the guardian spirits of the mountain.”

Material goods were scarce during Negi’s childhood, but he and his friends had fun making snowmen and playing with simple wooden sleds during the long winter breaks from school. Negi also enjoyed studying Buddhism and Tibetan scriptures. The Kinnaur valley has many Tibetan influences, and high Tibetan lamas often come to the area to teach. “One lama noted my interest and he asked me if I wanted to become a monk. I said, ‘Yes, if there’s such an opportunity,’” Negi recalls.

“In my culture, it was every child’s dream to become a monk or nun,” he says. “It’s like in America, where many might dream of becoming a doctor, an athlete or a film star. The monks are the celebrities of our culture. They are highly respected and valued.”

That’s changing rapidly, he adds. “Now you have televisions in almost every home in the Himalayas. Children are watching programs of all kinds, including CNN and MTV. Things have been rapidly modernizing. From my childhood, it’s radically different.”

At the age of 14, Negi left his family and village and was ordained as a monk. He entered the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in Dharamsala, India, the private school of His Holiness the Dalai Lama for children who wish to study traditional Tibetan Buddhism. He later moved to Karnataka in southern India to continue his studies at the Drepung Loseling Monastery, where he achieved the monastery’s highest degree of learning, known as Geshe Lharampa.

“Your days are very full,” he says of his monastic education. “It’s a very rigorous program of activities, including classes, debates and prayer sessions.” He studied in the Gelug tradition, also known as the “Yellow Hat” school of Buddhism, due to the distinctive, crescent-shaped yellow hats the monks wear. The intensive curriculum included psychology, philosophy, logic, monastic Buddhist ethics, cosmology and methods of contemplation.

Impermanence is a major focus of Buddhist philosophy. “You can’t see it happening, but this cup is changing moment by moment,” Negi says, pointing to his cup of chai tea. “When we fail to see the changing nature of all things, including ourselves, we tend to become more self-absorbed and incapable of accepting reality. This promotes a greater degree of fear, aggression, attachment, jealousy and so on. It has an impact on your attitudes and actions.”

In 1990, the Drepung Loseling Monastery received a donation of some land in north Georgia and decided to open the Drepung Loseling Institute in Atlanta the following year. The institute teaches Tibetan language and culture and promotes well-being through the practice of meditation. Negi was asked to serve as its director, with the blessing of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

“It was nothing glorious, like I was seen as having this great capacity to do this,” Negi explains, smiling. “At the monastery, there was hardly anyone who spoke any English at all. So, although I spoke terrible, broken English, they asked me to go to Atlanta and oversee the meditation center.”

Directing a center for Tibetan Buddhism in a bustling Western city marked a big change for Negi. Another major change was his enrollment in Emory’s Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts, where he received his doctorate in 1999.

“If I was going to be here, I wanted to also learn about Western thinking,” he explains.

Prior to coming to Atlanta, Negi was unfamiliar with modern scientific concepts such as evolution. “When I first heard that people came from monkeys I thought, ‘How can that be?’” he recalls. “But when I got the full explanation, evolution made sense and I have no reason not to believe in it now. I don’t think evolution fully explains life,” he adds. “I’m perfectly comfortable thinking that we’re in a physical evolution, and at the same time, some aspect of our energy is not limited to our physical bodies.”

Buddhist monks are trained through debate and, like good scientists, they are willing to change their minds when evidence contradicts their beliefs, Negi says. “Buddhism is based on examination and analysis. Buddha himself said that monks and scholars should be like goldsmiths. Just as a goldsmith examines a piece of metal by cutting, burning and rubbing it to see if it is gold or not, Buddhist scholars are expected to analyze Buddhist teachings and test their validity for themselves.”

Negi laughs when asked which is more valuable – the rank of Geshe Lharampa from Drepung Loseling Monastery or a Ph.D. from Emory.

“I am what I am because of my monastic education. It’s the way I define my worldview, my grounding,” he says. “What I’ve learned at Emory allows me to present Buddhist philosophy in a way that’s more accessible to Western students. Not only that, it gives me another dimension to understand some of the topics I’ve studied in my own tradition. I have a more well-rounded understanding of human nature.”

His Emory dissertation explored traditional Buddhist and contemporary Western approaches to emotions and their impact on health.

Another unexpected twist in Negi’s life journey was his decision to leave the monkhood. Living in the middle of a modern U.S. city, outside the seclusion of a monastery, made it difficult to maintain his vows, he says. “I fell in love, and I got married two years ago. On one level, it would have been nice to remain a monk for the remainder of my life. But living here, it was not possible. It was the right thing to do to give back my vows.”

His wife, Irene Lee, is executive director of the Drepung Loseling Institute. “I’ve been very fortunate, to have a wife who is so supportive of my work and whose commitments and interests align so well with my own,” Negi says.

The institute recently bought a former Haitian church, located in the Brookhaven neighborhood, to serve as its new, consolidated headquarters in Atlanta. The building is being refurbished to resemble a traditional Tibetan temple, including red-and-gold double doors, an elaborately carved and painted portico and golden rooftop finials.

Negi remains a valuable resource of Tibetan Buddhism in the Emory community. He serves as director of the Emory-Tibet Partnership, a melding of the best of Western and Tibetan Buddhist intellectual traditions, developed from the vision of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Bobby Paul, dean of Emory College. The Emory Tibet Science Initiative, which will integrate a comprehensive science curriculum into the traditional studies of Tibetan monks and nuns, is one of the groundbreaking programs of the partnership.

“The goal is to serve humanity in a more balanced and healthy way,” Negi says. “Developing a balanced education that integrates heart and intellect, science and spirituality, is a must for the survival of our future generations.”