A Letter to My Students in India Traveling with The TEXT Program (and Who Just Might Save the World)

Dear Chloe, Will, Jessi, Kaitlyn, Margaret, Erin, Olivia, JP, Casey, Whitney, Elanor, Eamon, Madison, Hannah, Sydne, Olivia, Abigail, along with Bobby, Craig, and Geshe la:

I miss you.

I wish I were there in India with you.

The TEXT Program, with Dolma Yangchen, President of the Tibetan Women’s Association

I wish I were as tired as many of you must be by now; I wish I were as confused by the changing schedules, as undone by the volatile Indian weather, as annoyed by that interminable drive from Delhi or Dehradun to Dharamsala and back. . . because if I were enduring those irritations, I would also have plunged myself into one of the strongest, most forward-thinking, irresolutely optimistic cultures on the planet.

But here is my point: it turns out that you don’t get the one without the other.

You don’t walk into the heart of nonviolence without undertaking a trip that will drain you, push you, and test you—that will make you see violence in all of its subtle forms—but that will also make you stronger, more tolerant, and more compassionate . . . that will, in short, better prepare you to take on the challenges that confront you when you return to America and resume your education—which nowadays ought to be aimed squarely at transforming yourselves into better, more effective citizens of the world.

So I would like to tell you how much I admire you for having chosen to take this trip, to engage this journey. You have become part of a project that I hope will continue into the future. But let me give some form to my admiration by making three points.

  1. Authentic activism initially requires the kind of energy that shows up in the most mundane ways: filling out forms, getting passports, visas, meds, and inoculations, reading books . . . doing all of the boring things that you have to do before you get a real chance to have a real effect, to leave your mark, and to make the world a slightly better place than it was before you arrived. Each one of you were drawn to The TEXT Program for different reasons, but not one of you allowed its difficulties to intimidate you. And I’m sure you were surprised both by its hardships and its joys, but still you engaged and persevered. Nurture those spirits of engagement and perseverance for the rest of your lives. They are very special qualities, and each of you has them in abundance.
  2. Angela Davis once wrote that “every change that has happened has come as a result of mass movements.” But mass movements are nothing more than masses of individuals moving in rhythm to an idea, to a principle, to a belief held in common. Don’t be intimidated by that intimidating phrase, “mass movements.” Look at what you’ve already done in just six weeks. By giving Tibetans who now live in exile a platform from which they can describe and articulate their feelings, ideas, and dreams, you are helping, in a small way, to amplify their voice and, by so doing, to preserve an authoritative perspective, and one that is both historically significant and irreplaceable. This is a movement directed toward preserving the power and truth of historical witness, and you are now part of that movement. I cannot tell you how deeply I appreciate your help. Perhaps we cannot save a civilization—no single person can—but we can indeed preserve a single voice, one at a time, from that civilization. You have done that, and you can and should be justifiably proud of your work.
  3. By now you have probably figured out two things (at least), but in the interest of consensus, let me articulate them. One, the Tibetan monastic system privileges education above all else and, two, Buddhism is generally convinced that ignorance, or the absence of real, human education, gives rise to all forms of human suffering, from the personal and the private to the public and the political. The assumption behind this conviction is important and maybe even charming: that human beings will aways behave better if only they know better.
Gyuto monks preparing the sand for a mandala, Himachal Pradesh, India, June 2017

The project that Buddhism gradually set for itself, then, was to devise ways, both creative and formulaic, to encourage us to know better. Then, once the encouragement had taken hold and we began to feel that we could remove some of that ignorance, the early teachers developed the methods—the lesson plans—for how we might actually do it . . . how we might actually transform ourselves into kinder, more compassionate, more tolerant, and more effective people on a planet that could currently use a little more kindness, compassion, tolerance, and effectiveness.

That, in a nutshell, is what you have just seen, first-hand.

The important thing to note is that these instructions and methods have nothing to do with religion; what you’re feeling now, submerged in this culture, is highly transportable, has a very long shelf-life, and prospers among all of the accredited religious traditions, as well as atheism and agnosticism. And plain, old apathy too. My point is this: unlike most Americans, you have now seen what nonviolence and the careful cultivation of a compassionate emotional intelligence look like, and while you can read books for the rest of your lives about these practices, nothing will replace what you have just witnessed.

So your job now is to transform what you have seen and learned. You will do this in American ways that are uniquely suited to bring an abiding emotional intelligence to the problems that confront your generation. Simply put, it’s a life’s work, and I am happy and privileged to have known you at this stage of your journey.

Obviously the primary goal of The TEXT Program is to record the stories of the Tibetans living in exile. You have done that, and I will always be indebted to you for helping me and Geshe la advance a project that is very dear to our hearts.

But it also strikes me that what I said earlier is also an important goal of the Program as well: to give our students the tools to transform themselves into better, more effective citizens of the world. No one can do that for you, of course, but the fact that you undertook this trip in the first place shows clearly that you are well on your way to taking the baton that 5000 years of nonviolent human culture would like very much to pass to you.

That you are now in the position to take it I consider a very great blessing to us all.

I will add your name to our TEXT mailing list, and now that I am stepping down from my position as Honors Director, I will be able to develop the Program in ways I previously didn’t have the time to do. I will certainly keep in touch, and I will hope that you do the same.

Finally, only two words left to say . . . inadequate, over-used, but in this case, deeply heartfelt: thank you!

And, please, take care of yourselves, and travel safely . . .

SB

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