“It is said that there are 84,000 doors to the dharma. That is, there are countless different ways to go about understanding Buddhism. If you’re inclined toward meditation, find a local sangha to sit with on a regular basis. If you’re more academically-oriented, start out by reading some books. Buddhist teachings are vast and varied; no single person will be able to identify with all aspects of Buddhism at once.”
I first met Connie in Kathmandu, Nepal in the summer of 2009. We were attending a 2 month course in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy at the International Buddhist Academy. I was a rather unknowing yoga teacher who showed up to this course only to realize we were studying some of the most advanced Buddhist philosophy there is. To be specific, we were studying Gorampa’s commentary of Nagarjuna’s MulaMadhyamakakarika. I was very much in over my head with the material but I was also very much in the center of my heart and felt incredibly blessed to have met Connie. At the time she was in her Ph.D. program at Emory and knowing a heck of a lot more than I, she supported my learning process. It would be 8 weeks that would drastically change the course of my life. I not only studied philosophy but fell in love with a country, culture, and Tibetan Buddhism. And during it all it was Connie who ate chocolate and drank coffee with me, laughed with me, passed notes in class with me, and sat on the academy roof in the evenings dreaming with me. She became one of my favorite people on earth.
Now, finally we are going to teach our first retreat together in Norway May 9-15, 2016! Hopefully you can join us to co-create beautiful new memories while studying philosophy that is simultaneously over our heads and in the center of our hearts.
But before that, enjoy her words below.
Connie Kassor Biography
Connie teaches Buddhism and South Asian/Himalayan religious traditions at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she also directs Smith’s Buddhist Studies Concentration and the Five College Tibetan Studies in India Program. Additionally, she is a course developer and instructor for the Rangjung Yeshe Institute’s Online Learning Program, based in Boudhanath, Nepal.
Connie’s academic interests involve Tibetan Buddhist interpretations of Madhyamaka philosophy. She is currently preparing a book manuscript that investigates the philosophy of the 15th-century Tibetan scholar Gorampa Sonam Senge, focusing in particular on his understanding of the relationship between analytical reasoning and meditative practices. She is also working on a translation of Gorampa’s important philosophical text, Synopsis of Madhyamaka (dbu ma’i spyi don).
Since 2003, Connie has divided her time between the United States, India, and Nepal. When she’s not teaching, writing, or translating, she tries to keep a regular Ashtanga practice.
Q: What was it about Tibetan Buddhism that first attracted you to it?
A: I first learned about Buddhism in a philosophy class in college. I took a course that focused on skepticism, and after we traced the history of the tradition in Western philosophy, we briefly studied the Indian philosopher Candrakīrti. I was immediately fascinated by Candrakīrti’s explanation of emptiness: that everything is empty of a permanent, stable, unchanging essence – even the concept of emptiness itself! By chance, my school happened to host a visiting professor from the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies (CIHTS) in Sarnath, India the following semester, named Ven. Dr. Tashi Tsering. He taught a course on Candrakīrti’s Entry into the Middle Way (Madhyamakāvatāra), which gave me a more thorough introduction to Buddhist philosophy.
The more I learned about Candrakīrti and Madhyamaka philosophy, the more I realized that the great Tibetan philosophers really held the key to understanding important aspects of this tradition. I began to learn Classical Tibetan, and finished my undergraduate career studying writings by the great Tibetan scholar Tsongkhapa Lobsang Drakpa. After graduating from college, I spent a year at CIHTS, where Ven. Dr. Tashi Tsering introduced me to the writings of another important Tibetan scholar, Gorampa Sonam Senge.
That first year that I spent in India inspired me to pursue a Ph.D. in religious studies, with a focus on Buddhist philosophy. My initial studies of Gorampa taught me that Tibetan Buddhist scholars have interpreted Candrakīrti in many different ways, and that debates stemming from these different interpretations have continued for centuries.
Buddhist philosophical debate fascinates me. A debate in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy is a lot like a game of chess. There are certain rules that both opponents must follow, but there is so much room for innovation and improvisation within the confines of those rules. Tsongkhapa and Gorampa, for example, come to very different conclusions about Candrakīrti’s explanation of emptiness, even though they’re working with the same texts and following the same sets of rules.
Q: What has the 15th century Tibetan scholar Gorampa Sonam Senge offered you, an American woman in the 21st century after so many years of dedicated research? Has your research impacted you personally, altering your own spiritual perspective or has Gorampa always stayed a rigorous, impersonal academic exercise?
A: My initial engagement with Tibetan Buddhism was purely intellectual. I began to study emptiness through a textual, analytical lens, informed by my background in Western philosophy. The more that I studied, however, the more I realized that remaining in the analytical realm has certain limitations.
Gorampa explains the realization of emptiness in terms of “freedom from conceptual proliferations.” This is a mental state that cannot be explained in terms of language or concepts; it is something that’s beyond all language and conceptual thought. There’s nothing wrong with studying and thinking hard about emptiness – Gorampa even says that it’s necessary on the path to awakening. However, intellectual knowledge on its own isn’t enough.
One way to think about this is to compare it to riding a bicycle. You can know all about the mechanics of a bike, the physics of balance and angular velocity, and so on, but that doesn’t mean that you actually know how to ride a bike. Knowing how to ride a bike takes repeated practice based on a certain level of intellectual understanding. Gorampa says that it’s the same way with understanding the Dharma. You have to study, but you also have to practice if you want to have a genuine understanding.
Over time, I’ve taken Gorampa’s words to heart. My intellectual study of Buddhist philosophy eventually led to my taking refuge – which I had the good fortune to receive from His Holiness the Sakya Trizin in 2010. While I don’t think that I’m any closer to realizing emptiness, I am beginning to realize that my study of Gorampa’s philosophy has impacted me spiritually as well as intellectually.
Q: For all the brilliance of wisdom that Tibetan Buddhism offers, we know it has also been highly patriarchal throughout the centuries. Have you felt this impact in your studies and even in current attitudes held by some teachers and practitioners? If so, how have you navigated it?
A: As a white American woman, I haven’t had to struggle much to receive access to the Dharma. I was extremely fortunate to initially encounter Buddhist philosophy in a women’s college in the U.S., and to have had mentors who encouraged my academic studies. In India and Nepal, my teachers (many of whom have been Tibetan monks) initially met my interest in Madhyamaka with surprise and a little amusement, but over time, they have also become supportive of my work.
My own experience stands in stark contrast to the experiences of many Tibetan, Indian, and Nepali women who study in monastic institutions that have considerably fewer resources than those of their male counterparts. Attitudes toward the role of women in Tibetan Buddhist traditions are changing – nuns are now able to pursue the Geshe degree, and His Holiness the Karmapa is helping to reinstate full ordination for women in the Tibetan tradition – but this change is happening slowly, and Buddhist women still have a long way to go on the road to equality.
In terms of the academic system in North America, women are perpetually underrepresented in philosophy departments. Unfortunately, this is reflected in the discipline of Buddhist philosophy as well. I have been fortunate to have worked with some amazing women in the course of my academic career in the U.S., but they remain a significant minority among scholars of Buddhist philosophy. It is my hope that as future generations continue to study Buddhist philosophy in Western academic settings, that there will be more women who can serve as mentors for younger generations.
Q: There seems to be a trickle of forward movement in promoting the leadership roles of women within Tibetan Buddhism. Do you see this as a stable trend that will continue?
A: As I mentioned previously, His Holiness the Karmapa has recently begun to pave the way toward full ordination for women. And with Geshe Kelsang Wangmo’s perseverance on her path toward becoming the first nun to earn the Geshe title (the highest academic degree awarded in the Tibetan Buddhist monastic education system), things are slowly starting to change, and I am hopeful that this momentum will continue to move Buddhist women forward.
Many of the nuns with whom I have lived and worked over the years are incredibly hard-working women. My friends at Jampa Choling Nunnery Institute in the Kinnaur district of India, for example, grow their own food, take care of animals, and maintain their monastery grounds in addition to taking classes, debating, and performing rituals full-time every day. These nuns even built their monastery with their own hands, hauling bricks and rocks up the steep mountainside on their backs. If these women can someday attain the same access to education that many of their male counterparts in larger monasteries receive, there’s no telling what they’ll be able to accomplish.
Q: What is your sense of how Buddhism is maturing in the West overall?
A: We are at a particularly fascinating time in the development of Buddhism in the West. The popularity of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the incorporation of Buddhist-inspired meditative practices into secular settings, and the interest in the relationships between Buddhist doctrine and Western science are all signs that Buddhism has become – and will continue to be – integrated into mainstream Western society.
While some people might worry that these new developments are detracting from so-called “traditional” Buddhism, the fact is that Buddhist traditions have always shifted and adapted. As Buddhist thought moved from India to Southeast Asia, to East Asia, and to Tibet centuries ago, it continually transformed and adapted to these new cultures and environments. I think that this is no different than what we’re seeing in the Americas, Europe, and Australia today; Buddhist traditions are adapting to yet another set of cultures. The adaptability of Buddhism is actually one of its most important characteristics, and is what has allowed Buddhist traditions to thrive throughout the world for 2,500 years.
Q: If you could offer some advice to new Western students curious about studying Buddhism what would it be?
A: It is said that there are 84,000 doors to the dharma. That is, there are countless different ways to go about understanding Buddhism. If you’re inclined toward meditation, find a local sangha to sit with on a regular basis. If you’re more academically-oriented, start out by reading some books. Buddhist teachings are vast and varied; no single person will be able to identify with all aspects of Buddhism at once.
My best advice for those who are curious about Buddhism would be to learn from a qualified teacher. Even if you can’t study with someone in person, there are some really wonderful books out there that are geared specifically toward those who are new to Buddhism. Two of the best books for beginners are What Makes You Not a Buddhist, by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, and Freeing the Heart and Mind, by His Holiness the Sakya Trizin. For folks who are more interested in the early history of Buddhism and its basic doctrines, Rupert Gethin’s The Foundations of Buddhism is an excellent introduction. And a lovely primary text is Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra. There are many good English versions of this text, but the Padmakara Translation Group’s translation, titled The Way of the Bodhisattva, is probably the most accessible to beginners.
Because these interviews are an extension of Vasudhaiva’s mission to cultivate and aid in the realization of wisdom, we make a point to ask several questions directly about wisdom in each interview.
Q: How do you define “wisdom” in the context of your spiritual life?
A: Wisdom can be defined in so many different ways! I can’t help but return to Gorampa’s writings for help with answering this question.
Gorampa (along with a host of other Buddhist philosophers) makes a distinction between an intellectual sort of understanding called “discriminating awareness” (shes rab in Tibetan, prajñā in Sanskrit), and a higher level of “enlightened wisdom” (ye shes in Tibetan, jñāna in Sanskrit). According to Gorampa, true wisdom is something that is beyond our ability to conceive. It is more than mere intellectual understanding; it’s a sort of internalized realization of the Truth-with-a-capital-T. It’s the result of a long process of careful analysis of the world around you, combined with extensive meditation on that analysis. In short, Gorampa understands enlightened wisdom as something that doesn’t need to be mediated by thoughts; it arises effortlessly and automatically.
In the context of my own spiritual life, I’m still pretty far away from having the sort of enlightened wisdom that Gorampa describes. I think that “wisdom” for ordinary folks has more to do with perceiving the world as non-judgmentally as possible, and responding with compassion to any given situation. To put it into the most colloquial terms possible, I think that it boils down to this: Wise people are not jerks. So if I can do my best to avoid being a jerk, and if I can get to a point where my ability to refrain from being a jerk arises without too much effort, then I think I’ll be doing pretty well for myself.
Q: What particular texts have had a profound impact in your cultivation of wisdom and could you describe briefly why?
A: My primary engagement with Buddhism has been through the philosophical texts, and those have impacted my life significantly. The great Madhyamaka texts by Nāgārjuna and Candrakīrti, as well as the writings of Gorampa and Tsongkhapa, are by far the most influential texts. Gorampa’s Synopsis of Madhyamaka is especially influential, primarily because I have devoted so many years to studying it, but also because I think that it is genuinely an incredibly profound text. I believe that it can, in one way or another, give insight into almost any philosophical, spiritual, and ethical question imaginable.
I’ve also been influenced by Italo Calvino’s novels and short stories. Calvino manages to write with such eloquence about the world. I highly recommend Invisible Cities and Mr. Palomar. They’re both short texts that I can read over and over again and always find something new.
Q: Can you tell us one or more specific wisdom teachings (direct quotes if possible) that have deeply touched you and briefly describe why?
A: Two teachings immediately come to mind, and they constantly inform the way that I try to live in the world:
The first is from Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra, in his chapter on the perfection of patience:
If there is a remedy, then what is the use of frustration?
If there is no remedy, then what benefit is frustration?
This verse seems so plainly obvious, and that is what makes it so incredibly profound. Any time that I recognize any sort of anger, frustration, or dissatisfaction in my mind, I try to remember this verse. If you can fix your problem, then stop worrying and fix it. And if you can’t fix your problem, then worrying and becoming frustrated is never going to do you any good.
The second teaching that has influenced my life is from the Sakyapa master Jetsun Drakpa Gyaltsen. He wrote a commentary on the text Parting from the Four Attachments (which is another highly recommended teaching that exists in a few English translations). In this commentary he says:
Our whole human life is spent preparing,
And in the midst of our preparing, we are swept away by death;
But not even in death is there any end to preparation,
As once again we begin making ready for the next life.
This teaching reminds me of the importance of the present moment. We tend to spend so much time worrying about and preparing for the future, that it’s easy to forget where we are right now.
For more information about Constance Kassor Ph.D.
May 2016: Yoga and Buddhism practice and philosophy retreat in Norway with Sati!
Current projects: revising a book manuscript on Gorampa’s philosophy, tentatively called, Thinking the Unthinkable / Unthinking the Thinkable. Also: working on a translation of Gorampa’s Synopsis of Madhyamaka (dbu ma’i spyi don) with Khenpo Ngawang Jorden at the International Buddhist Academy.