This is the second part of my interview with Khenpo Pema Wangdak, a Tibetan Buddhist monk who is based in New York City (see part 1).
I visited Khenpo (an honorary title) Pema a few weeks ago at his small apartment on the upper West Side of Manhattan in New York City. The spare two rooms in an old brownstone houses the Vikramasila Foundation, a nonprofit charitable organization dedicated to the teachings of Buddha. Established under the auspices of His Holiness Sakya Trichen, the foundation has been directed for more than 30 years by Khenpo Pema Wangdak.
I first met Khenpo Pema in 1986, when he was my Tibetan language teacher in preparation for a journey I took to Tibet in 1987. I found him to be an inspiring, funny, and perceptive friend (who was also very patient with my battles to learn basic Tibetan). Although our paths have not crossed more than a handful of times over the past 35 years, I often remember things he has said, and I believe that his presence and wisdom have helped me perceive the world in a different way.
On Tour (or Not) with Khenpo Pema
Khenpo Pema says that he loves to travel because he is “obsessed” with ideas and information. But he does not always feel the need to be a tourist when he travels. The one time he visited Barcelona, he said, “they picked me up at the airport and we went straight to an apartment, where I taught for three days.” At the end of the third day he was returned to the airport. “I never saw Barcelona,” he said. But that was fine with him. He explained that if something catches his interest—-architecture, for one, he can become the ultimate tourist. “I want to see a science museum or a Buddhist temple in Taiwan,” he says, not to just see something new but to collect ideas about and inspiration for what he can do with that information in the future. Khenpo Pema travels to Sweden often, where in the past he has visited the Volvo or Saab factories (and he especially enjoyed a visit to a ball bearing company). “It is almost as if I get high on it,” he says, “learning how things work keeps me entertained.” But when he has learned what he wants to learn, he laughs, “I’m done.” That curiosity about how things work may come from his parents or teachers. Or “it may just be inborn… I can’t tell.”
Is it Enough to Be Nice?
How people treat Khenpo Pema is not of primary interest to him. As he explained, “When I travel, sometimes people are so nice. Next time I’ll be somewhere where people may not be so generous, but I don’t feel bad. People do what they can….One should never expect only pleasant experiences when you travel.”
Mindfulness is the key to successful travel, according to Khenpo Pema, “Sometimes when I teach, someone may offer me a very luxurious place and sometimes I’ll find myself sleeping under the staircase. I have no problem with any of it,” he says. “If someone is unkind and I am mindful, it is O.K. If not, then sometimes I might act like a typical human being and get upset.” He believes that the benefit of mindfulness is that “you get to possess yourself.”
He also believes that being faced with difficulties in life is ultimately beneficial to one as a person. “When you grow up in a world without comfort, when there is discomfort it is easier to deal with,” he says. He believes that people should treat each other well, but being nice “may also be bad for you—you may expect others to treat you well, also.” The danger, he believes, is that personal and cultural differences may affect how you think someone should act and that may lead to disappointment.
When Your Seatmate is a Tibetan Monk
Khenpo Pema understands why some people are unsure of how one chats with a Tibetan Monk sitting next to you on a flight, “Sometimes people—especially young people—are a little shy because I am a different person than they’re used to: I am from a different culture and racial group. If they want to talk, I am very interested. If they do not, that is good too.”
He sees traveling as a Tibetan monk may be both an advantage and a disadvantage. “A policeman stopped me for a driving violation some years ago. I was driving a big black car, and he was surprised to see a little skinny monk behind the wheel. He had a mindset of what kind of person would be driving that car, and he saw that it was different than he thought. In the end, he just waved me on. That was one advantage for me.”
Khenpo Pema’s Favorite Destination
Khenpo Pema has told me that when he sees a new place, he imagines what it would be like to live there and thinks about what he might accomplish in such a place. He said, “I think that the place I love the best is the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington state. They are beautiful but a little lonely-looking.” “All of those small islands—-you need a little boat to get places. It would be very tempting to live there. It seems so private, and I could set up a school and not worry about the children roaming because they would be protected.” He visits the islands every year.
The last piece of advice that Khenpo Pema gave me was that, with mindfulness, “you learn to appreciate what is good at the moment. You also learn to let go when it is not good.”
Khenpo Pema Wangdak teaches at sites around the United States and in Central and South America and Europe. He can be reached at the
4 W. 101 St., N.Y., N.Y. 10025,
The Book of Joy: an audio book in which the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu discuss how we can find joy in the face of adversity