The cast and creative team of The Oldest Boy received a very special gift in the rehearsal room the other day – a visit from Khenpo Pema Wangdak, a Tibetan lama based in the United States. “Lama” is an honorific title in Tibetan Buddhism for a spiritual leader, and “Khenpo” was a title awarded to him in 2007. As Khenpo Pema spoke to the cast, who were sitting on the floor almost at his feet, it was clear from his remarks why he earned his designation.
While Khenpo Pema was gracious in responding to specific cast questions, the telling of his own story and a brief explanation of Tibetan Buddhism were the focus of his appearance.
He was born in western Tibet, in 1954, and moved to India in 1960 or 1961, after the Communist government in China stepped up its assault on Tibetan culture. He has an older brother and two younger sisters.
“I was the family’s ‘designated monk,’” Khenpo Pema joked, in regard to beginning his spiritual training seriously at age 7 or 8. Isn’t that a young age to enter a monastery? “It’s kind of like an arranged marriage,” he answered. “It’s hard in the West to imagine how it works.”
Khenpo Pema talked about the outward signs, exhibited for most of his life, of the monastic life. The close cropping of hair, for example. “Hair has no use except vanity,” he said. “And it requires a great deal of maintenance.” And his beautiful, deep-red robes? “The robe is merely a symbol of a certain commitment,” he explained.
The actor James Yaegashi asked Khenpo Pema about how a Tibetan can maintain his identity in the West – Yaegashi’s character is attempting to do the same thing in the play. “It’s very hard,” Khenpo Pema answered. “When I first came to the West, I had an easier adjustment then some other Tibetans. I’m outgoing. Those who weren’t experienced greater loneliness.”
Playwright Sarah Ruhl asked how many tulkus– in the play a young boy is recognized as one of these high-ranking lamas – there are at the present time. Khenpo Pema wasn’t sure of the exact number but thought it was at least a hundred. When asked how a young tulku would be treated in the monastery, he responded, “As someone very special.”
Khenpo Pema, who has a fan page on Facebook, said that both in his life in the U.S. and in general he has been helped by the fact that “the teachings of Buddha are always practical. The Buddha said that his teachings were not to be followed but to be tested and experienced.”
Both at the beginning and the end of his remarks, Khenpo Pema reminded The Oldest Boy team that their work was not only essential (“Art helps the world maintain its sanity”) but of parallel value to the Tibetan way of life. “The Tibetan economy is culture-based. It is because culture is so central to our way of life that we prize it so much, and want so much to sustain it.”
To close the session, Khenpo Pema gave an explanation of the meaning of prayer, offered a blessing, and gifted the group with a few minutes of chanting.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com