Book excerpt: In Running Toward Mystery, The Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi shares his life's journey and ideas

In Running Toward Mystery, with Iranian-American writer Zara Houshmand, The Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi records his lifelong journey as a seeker.

Tenzin Priyadarshi and Zara Houshmand September 15, 2020 12:14:11 IST
Book excerpt: In Running Toward Mystery, The Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi shares his life's journey and ideas

In Running Toward Mystery, with Iranian-American writer Zara Houshmand, The Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi, President and CEO of The Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, records his lifelong journey as a seeker. 

This excerpt from Running Toward Mystery: The Adventure of an Unconventional Life is republished here with permission from Penguin Random House India.

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A couple of months after our encounter in Sarnath, I happened to spend some time attending teachings in Dehradun. I knew that Drubwang Rinpoche lived nearby at a small hermitage near the falls at Sahastradhara, and I wanted very much to see him again. I joined the line of Tibetans and Ladakhis waiting to see him, every one of them reciting mantras under their breath, nervous with anticipation. An attendant tried to shoo me in ahead of the others, but I kept to my place. I fully intended to stay for a while, and not just pass through quickly for a blessing like most.

When I entered the hut, he was once again sitting on a narrow bed wrapped in a blanket. There was a thangka painting on the wall behind him, a shelf with a couple of books and a very simple shrine. A small table held a wooden cup and a prayer wheel. That was it. But the room was somehow filled with his majestic presence. He told his attendant to shut the door and he gave me that subtle smile again. We spoke through the attendant, who translated into Hindi, as I couldn’t follow his dialect.

“Why have you come?”

“I don’t know.”

“Good. It is good not to know. So what do you want?”

“I’d like to receive teachings.”

“I don’t teach.”

“That’s fine, can I just stay here?”

He looked around, as if measuring the space. “I don’t have any room.”

“I’ll find a place to stay in the monastery.”

“Good. Go and meditate on impermanence. If you understand that, you will understand everything.”

I tried asking him how to go about it, hoping for specific instructions, but even more just hoping to continue the conversation. He answered, very gently, “You know that already. Don’t ask me. Just go do it. If you have questions, come back later.”

I did come back, as often as I could manage it. With his blessing, his students shared with me some of the instructions he had given them, and I spent a good portion of my time in Dehradun and later practicing what they had shared. But more than anything I wanted to use my time there to just soak up his presence. His claim that he didn’t teach was more deflection than truth. He was well-known for teaching the mantra that was familiar to all Tibetans: om mani padme hum.

His emphasis on that one formula was strategic. People tended to seek him out for reasons he didn’t particularly want to encourage. Tibetans wanted him to confirm auspicious dates, heal ailments, or clear obstacles that stood in the way of success. They wanted to learn about their past lives or be reassured about future ones. Other teachers came asking for him to give the most advanced of esoteric teachings, and he deflected humbly, claimed he didn’t have those skills.

Foreigners came asking too, even if they weren’t particularly eager to take on the prerequisite commitments. They wanted him to interpret their dreams, which had seemed so remarkable in the dark of night, but to which he would only say, “It’s a good dream. But just a dream. Now go practice.” He sent them all back to the essentials.

The recitation of the mantra om mani padme hum was the most ordinary practice, universally accessible. The phrase was visible everywhere — carved into stones, spinning on prayer wheels, fluttering on flags in the wind — and repeated by all, mumbled softly or silently rehearsed. That invocation of the Jewel- Lotus cut to the most essential core of the Buddha’s teachings: a lotus flower rooted in the mud of our existence, rising out of that murky pool to unfurl its petals in unsullied perfection and reveal at its heart the jewel of the enlightened mind — the Buddha’s reality, our own potential — nirvana contained within samsara, the impulse to boundless compassion indistinguishable from wisdom’s emptiness.

There was nothing in all of Dharma, he insisted, that was not somehow packed into those six syllables sacred to Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion, and in their unpacking he was a gushing fountain, the words pouring out like spontaneous poetry in a fulgent stream that left his translator gasping for some fraction of a pause to interject. His style of teaching was very different with those students who were seriously committed and who, in many cases, had spent years meditating in retreat. It was a conversation. Questions would generate long pauses, and then he would slowly start to talk.

Sometimes I sat in the corner for long stretches of time while nothing much was said. Sometimes he would just look at you. I imagine a context that was much the same when the Buddha originally taught: a gathering of a handful of students within a culture where learning happened through observation and emulation. Teaching arose organically through conversation, rather than as sermons composed for an occasion. Students held the spoken words in memory, condensed them into verse, and wove them into lifestyles and practices. Even more essential than the words remembered, filtered, and reconstructed, was the teacher’s presence.

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