Geometry teaches us that two lines that aren't parallel always meet at some point. Spokane and Tibet are as unparalleled as it gets: the technology and luxuries like indoor plumbing here don't come standard there. Tibet, by and large, is the third world, resembling an America from more than a century ago, but there's at least one intersection between the two.
You'll find this collision of cultures at Tsinta Mani Choling, a Tibetan Buddhist cultural center near Spokane's Corbin Park, where Lama Lakshey Zangpo Rinpoche teaches most Sundays, covering topics including wisdom, emptiness and the idea that Buddhist philosophy is for anyone, regardless of your own religious background.
"People of other faiths can absolutely benefit. I'm not concerned with converting people to Buddhism, but rather teaching people and allowing them to be informed," the Lama says. "It doesn't matter what you believe or don't believe, there's a benefit."
In his home near Manito Park, Lama Lakshey Zangpo has a room to himself and the opportunity to shower every day for as long as he likes — extravagances he couldn't even have imagined as a little boy in Tibet. With iPhone and iPad in hand, he flips through photos of the life he left behind years ago.
He spent his formative years in Tibet living as a nomad. His family relied on livestock, eating and trading animals to support themselves, living in tents and moving around as the seasons changed. He comes from a family that included 10 children, so educational opportunities were limited because his whole family needed to work to make ends meet. His parents allowed him to pursue the path that led to his becoming a Lama, but not all his siblings were as fortunate. When he finished his studies at the monastery, he wanted that situation to change. He wanted access to education to be easier.
"After I graduated from Buddhist academic school, I worked to support Tibetan orphans and provide an education for them," he says. So in 1999, he and two other Tibetan masters established Sengdruk Taktse School in eastern Tibet.
"We admit boys and girls equally and give them the opportunity to study," he says. "And we don't focus on what they believe; that is 100 percent their decision and up to them. When they grow up and graduate from our school, they can go wherever they want to go. We support them in whatever they will become."
An American volunteer at the Tibetan school invited the Lama to to study English and create the Joru Foundation in 2007. The foundation aims to raise money and find other resources to continue providing food, shelter and learning opportunities for the students at Sengdruk Taktse School. Lama Lakshey says interest in Buddhist teachings was growing when he arrived in the U.S. and people invited him to teach in California, Oregon and Washington.
"That's why I'm here. To teach and develop the Buddhist community called sangha. To serve that community," he says. The three most important parts of Buddhism are the Buddha (the man whose teachings formed the basis of Buddhism), the Dharma (the teachings themselves) and the sangha (the group). The sangha remains hugely important, Buddhists believe, because it's nearly impossible for people to reach enlightenment without support from others. The Lama hopes to strengthen the sangha in Spokane to offer people that path should they choose to take it.
He found a place to call home and develop that community in Spokane, where he's lived since 2009. He's developed friendships with people in Spokane, teaching meditation courses at Spokane Falls Community College where he met Dr. Dexter Amend, an instructor who's been studying Buddhism since 1985. Over the past few years, the two have offered unforgettable cultural immersion experiences for Americans to bridge the gap between Spokane and Tibet.
"After we'd been working together that way [at SFCC], we applied for a grant to set up a cultural excursion to Tibet that would be available to people in the community, not just people at SFCC," Dr. Amend says.
Lama Lakshey and Dr. Amend, along with former SFCC students, took their first trip to Tibet in the summer of 2011. The program included a visit to the Lama's school where they helped as teacher's aides and taught English to the students.
"The trip was an amazing experience and I learned a lot about Buddhism and the culture there," says Lenny Moore, an SFCC graduate who went on that first trip.
"That was the reason I went: to learn more about that stuff. It was my first time abroad, my first time getting away from my own country and seeing something new. It was life changing."
The trip was eye-opening for the visiting Americans, but the Lama wasn't finished changing lives. When it was time to head back to the States, he worked it out so that two young men who'd just graduated from his school were able to return with them to study at SFCC, now a sister school to Sengdruk Taktse School.
"We have paid for their tuition, medical bills, housing, food — everything. Because they are international students, they don't have papers to work here and they don't have any income, so I am fully responsible for these two young men," the Lama says.
The young men, Dawa Jigmed, 25, and Jigmed Tubtie, 24, are set to graduate next winter quarter, and the hope is that they'll serve others by offering education opportunities to younger generations in schools on the Tibetan plateau. If there aren't any problems renewing their visas or raising money, the pair wants to continue their studies here before going back home.
"So far, it's been so good. We are supported by the Joru Foundation, but I don't know if they can continue to support us," Jigmed says. Both Jigmed and Tubtie are hoping to earn bachelor's degrees from Eastern Washington University before returning to teach at the school in Tibet that opened doors for them.
There is a short hiatus on cultural immersion trips to Tibet until 2015. In the meantime, Lama Lakshey and Dr. Amend are teaching a new class at SFCC next quarter called The Psychology of Personal and Interpersonal Peace, where students will learn psychological methods to resolve conflicts and reach peace from both Eastern and Western perspectives, exploring mental processes associated with violence and nonviolence.
The Lama has a few goals for his teaching here. One, of course, is to develop the community because that means he can serve it. Secondly, he'd like to help everyone simply realize the need for harmony and unity.
"My one purpose is to show that Buddhism is not against any religion, it's a contribution to any faith or religion. I think I have some opportunity to bring our human brothers and sisters more understanding of each other, because we are all the same. I can focus on that if I stay here," he says. ♦
Movie Night with Lama Lakshey Zangpo Rinpoche • Thu, March 6 at 6:30 pm • $20 • Magic Lantern • 25 W. Main • 235-8063