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Tibet religious scholar eager to share his faith in visit here

Tibet religious scholar eager to share his faith in visit here

By Marian Dozier
Staff Writer

June 24, 2001

Deerfield Beach + Inside the Tubten Kunga Center for the Study of Tibetan Buddhism, in a room with plump purple pillows lining the floor behind low-slung black desks, a dozen students settle in to learn about "The Foundation of All Good Qualities."

Colorful tapestries of Tibetan deities form a backdrop for the throne that rises above the students on the floor, and up there sits Geshe Konchog Kyab, a Tibetan monk who came to Tubten Kunga a year ago as a resident teacher.

Konchog, 39, sits cross-legged, swathed in traditional fabrics of vivid gold and burgundy, a look of solemnity on his face. He leads his students through prayers and chants.

Then study begins.

His subject: mind control over negative action, his text inspired by a 15th-century poem. He dictates his emphatic monologue in Tibetan, his words then translated by Venerable Chantal Carrerot, a French-born Tibetan Buddhist nun visiting Tubten Kunga until July.

Konchog often ad-libs in English, a language he is learning as he goes, aided by The Discovery Channel and National Geographic documentaries.

"Once trained, we can use the body and the mind as we wish, and reach a level of concentration that equates to an ecstasy," he said through Carrerot. "When you listen to the teaching, then you train the mind, you follow that, then you change your life. So, when you get the negative action, you can say no."

He knows of which he speaks. Since age 12, Konchog studied the ancient wisdom of Tibetan Buddhism at the Sera Je Monastery, an all-but-cloistered village of about 4,000 men in the south Indian countryside.

He'd grown up in Sikkim in the Himalayan region of Eastern India. His parents, refugees from Chinese occupation, had fled there from Tibet in 1959 in the wave of migration in which the Dalai Lama made his exodus.

In 1994 -- after 22 years of study -- he graduated as a "geshe," or teacher, with a degree that roughly equates to a doctorate in Buddhist philosophy. He was teaching a group of disciples at Sere Je when Lama Zopa Rinpoche, a leader of his Mahayana Buddhism tradition, asked him to go west -- as in the United States.

Though he could have continued teaching at the monastery or perhaps taken a lifelong retreat in the mountains, Konchog did not hesitate.

"I felt I wanted to come here," he said. "Since I was in my 20s, I had a motivation when I become a good teacher, a qualified geshe, why not to help Westerners because they are very much interested in Buddhism."

He wanted "to bring them the happiness and the peace."

The request wasn't an odd one. Lama Zopa, a disciple of Lama Thubten Yeshe, had been teaching Mahayana Buddhism to all comers since 1969, traveling the world to spread the Dharma and teaching Westerners at their Kopan Monastery in Nepal.

In 1975, they founded the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, an international Buddhist organization that has grown to more than 150 affiliated centers worldwide, including 20 in the United States. One of them is Tubten Kunga.

Konchog came to Tubten Kunga in May 2000 on a three-year contract, and Tubten Kunga became one of four U.S. centers to have a resident teacher.

Credit founder Jacqueline Keeley, of Boca Raton. She'd been a secretary to Yeshe at Kopan for eight years in the late 1970s and early '80s. In 1994 she started Tubten Kunga, its members meeting for meditation and spiritual classes in office buildings, private homes and college classrooms all over southern Palm Beach County.

Keeley's simple start is now a 1,620-square-foot storefront at 835 SE Eighth Ave. with a retail shop, classroom, library and meditation room. The center attracts students from as far south as Homestead and as far north as Jupiter.

Konchog has made a major difference, said Cathy Leonard, of Boca Raton, a Tubten Kunga board member.

"He put us on the map," she said.

Joey Matthews of Fort Lauderdale agrees. She had been on a spiritual search since 1974, when she began recovering from drug and alcohol addiction, and had gone through Christianity, Hinduism, Sufism. Nothing clicked, she said, until she met a Buddhist teacher about 10 years ago in Key West.

"And it just grabbed me. I said, 'Aha, this is it. This is me,'" she said.

Of late, she had been "flopping around," seeking a stable place to learn. She heard about Konchog, and has been driving north for six months.

"I wasn't able to find anywhere to maintain my study and learning, so to discover we have a geshe here, who spent 30 years studying, well, it's very special," she said. "I feel very privileged to learn from him."

Konchog had never been to the United States before. He had heard things about this wealthy Western nation, but was unprepared for the ironic, wrenching poverty he would see.

And why so much support for the death penalty? It saddens him.

"There is no benefit, no use," he said, shaking his head. "If by killing one person, we have some peace coming, OK, but we're not having peace. It's no good. Every individual person has responsibility to bring peace ... that is why I am here, to help if I can.

"I can't bring all the Americans peace, but one person, two persons, three persons. It helps."

He is also troubled by the American penchant for stuff -- which he describes by making grabbing motions with his hands -- and for rushing around.

This is a central challenge for him at Tubten Kunga, he says.

"Most of the [students], they want very, very quickly, they want it very fast, easy, and I tell them ... you need more effort," he said.

Mindy Sedrish of Weston, Tubten Kunga's spiritual program coordinator, said Konchog has put his finger on a familiar problem for Americans seeking to master Buddhist practices.

"Our training is different," she explained. "In the monastery, they start when they're kids; they memorize; they debate. In this country, we're trained in analysis and that's why we're so impatient. We want to understand everything right now."

Marian Dozier can be reached at mdozier@sun-sentinel.com or 561-243-6643.

Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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