High in the hills of a remote stretch of the Sonoma County coast sits the world’s largest printing press for sacred Tibetan texts. I work there every day, six days a week. Each of those six days begins relatively the same. I wake up at six, take a quick shower, put on a pair of jeans and a few layers, then head to The Lodge for breakfast. The walk to The Lodge is about eight minutes. I make breakfast for myself from what is leftover/available in the kitchen. The pantry and walk-in are locked. I usually end up with yogurt and cereal. I have a cup of coffee and read my book before walking down to the big golden stupa/garden in front of The Bindery. This walk takes about eight minutes as well. At eight, we have a morning meeting (AKA chanting) for ten minutes or so, and a reading from a book covering the history of Ratna Ling and its founder, Tarthang Tulku. After the morning meeting we split off and go to our “jobs”. Mine is in the Bindery. Before we actually start working, we do more chanting. About twenty minutes worth. After that another reading, this time from Tarthang Tulku’s book, “Skillful Means”. After that we set to work.
I work in a 21,234 square foot factory housed on the grounds of Ratna Ling. About six or seven volunteers like myself work six days a week to print and collate more than 100,000 books a year. The texts are then shipped off to India and Nepal for distribution to monasteries and refugees from China’s brutal crackdown on Tibet. The books I am currently making will be in India this summer. That’s pretty cool. I’m happy to be someone who is helping. To a certain extent. Most of the volunteers here practice Tibetan Buddhism, and produce text as a mandate of their religion and their “teacher” (Rinpoche) Tarthang Tulku. He lives in a golden palace called Odiyan which sits across the valley from Ratna Ling. Okay, maybe it’s not a palace, but it’s close.
And therein lies my issue with being here. There is a Guru on a hill who dictates my days. I find this odd and just a little disturbing.
When people here ask me why I wanted to come, my answer isn’t the same as everyone elses. I’m not here because I want to become a Tibetan Buddhist. I’m here because I believe strongly in freedom of religion. I think it sucks that Buddhists in Tibet can’t read their own sacred text. Imagine what Catholics, Presbyterians, Jews, Mormons and Muslims would do if it were illegal to read the Bible, or Koran, or Book of Mormon. They’d freak out! And they’d be really happy that some nice folks in a free country literally donated years of their lives to make sure they could still read their Sacred Texts. It is your right to follow what ever crazy religion you choose, it is also your right to abstain from it altogether. And that’s why I’m here. I support their right to practice, chant, read, and be Buddhists. I guess I’m learning that Buddhism, at least this kind, just isn’t for me.
Tibetan Buddhism isn’t at all like the Zen Buddhism we westerners are familiar with. It’s not namaste and downward dog here. It’s chanting prayers to “Rinpoche” and Kum Nye yoga. Kum Nye yoga is a traditional Tibetan body practice that is part of the religion. It was first introduced in the US by Lama Tarthang Tulku (or, Rinpoche as he is known at Ratna Ling) and he has written five books on the subject. Many of the people I have met here came to Ratna Ling specifically to practice Kum Nye. It is a really, really slow-moving yoga. It is supposed to massage you on the inside. I know. It sounds really “hippy”, and I’m not going to lie, it totally is.
There are a few different parts of Tibetan Buddhism, and a few of them don’t sit well with me. I don’t believe in reincarnation, and therefore I don’t really believe in Karma. At least not the kind talked about in Tibetan Buddhism. I don’t believe that I had a past life, and if I did, I doubt it pulls any weight with this one. I also have trouble with the Guru devotion part. Many of the people here talk of Rinpoche like he is a literal god. Those tiny horses in the picture above? He wanted horses and the next week they were there. He calls the shots. Literally. He gave us Bindery folks a half day on Saturday. It was a big deal. It marks the first time in twenty years that he has given any time off to his, um, worker bees.
So I’m working my ass off in the name of freedom. I’m walking the walk. I believe in the human right to believe in, or not believe in whatever you want. I don’t really want to chant all the time, I find it as silly as the call and answer portion of the church services I grew up with. It’s a little creepy. But that’s my opinion and my right. I have a right to find most religions silly if I want. I have the right to pray to Buddha, Jesus, Guru Rinpoche, or a life-size cut out of Darth Vader. As long as you aren’t hurting anybody, then be as religious as you want. So saith me.
Praise Cheebus, amen.