2012-10-12 / Community

Son introduces father to new education

Neighbors
By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer


Losang Therchin (Matt Weiss) and David Weiss Losang Therchin (Matt Weiss) and David Weiss When David Weiss passed a storefront in North Conway, N.H. promoting a conversation with a Buddhist monk at the store, he had no idea the effect the event would have on his son Matt’s future, and eventually, his own.

Weiss said the event, which he attended with his two sons, Matt and Adam, over a decade ago, sparked Matt’s interest in Buddism. At the time, Matt was a freshman in college at Worcester Polytechnic Institute studying physics. But over the years, Matt’s academic focus shifted and led him, ultimately to move to India.

Until recently, David Weiss was a Cape Elizabeth resident. He hosted a talk and slideshow at Thomas Memorial Library on Oct. 4 to discuss his experience in India to visit his son, who now goes by the name Losang Tharchin.

In North Conway, Matt discussed the Dharma, or Buddhist law, frequently with the American monk named Jompa, who led the event. After he received a bachelor’s degree from Worcester Polytechnic Institute and a master’s degree in applied mathematics, Matt enrolled in a PhD program at Harvard University that focused on Buddhist teachings.

But just six weeks after starting courses at Harvard, Matt decided he needed to go to a monastery to better learn the Dharma. He dropped out, traveled to southern India and became a monk at the Sara Jey Monastic University in the district of Mysore. In February, Tharchin’s father decided to make a visit.

“People said, ‘This is going to change you,’” Weiss said. “But it changed me in ways I never thought I could experience.”

He was in India for 14 weeks from February to June. He said the poverty and hunger he saw made him realize how much excess exists in everyone’s everyday life in the United States, but he was also struck by the respect everyone at Sara Jey showed him during his time there.

Weiss, 72, stayed with one of Tharchin’s teachers and mentors, Geshe-la Nawang Sangey. Geshe-la is a title given to a member of the monastery who finished the 18 years of training learning the Dharma after completing primary schooling. Weiss equated it to the monastery’s version of a PhD.

“(Geshe-la) was brilliant, but he was also an example of passion and kindness and patience,” Weiss said. “He treated me with great respect, but I think also he had great respect for my son and, as a result, I think that carried over to his respect for me.”

The monks at Sara Jey didn’t fit into the cultural perceptions most people have of them, Weiss said. Instead of silent meditation, they debated the Dharma in an animated, passionate and aggressive manner.

“They get into larger groups in a horseshoe shape, and one person will stand and debate the other monks who are sitting,” Weiss said.

Depending on where they fall in the debate, monks will join in and involve themselves in the conversation on either side, and they will even physically jostle for position to get their voices heard. The group of monks involved in these debates sometimes numbered as many as 200, and sounded, Weiss said, like “a swarm of bees.”

The environment was perfect for his son Tharchin, Weiss said, whose logical and mathematical mind make him a great debater. Weiss, meanwhile, found his niche at Sara Jey teaching poetry.

He taught poetry to ninth-grade students at the monastery, although many of those students were older than what westerners consider a ninth grade age level, as the Indian students generally didn’t start at the monastery until they were around 10 years old.

He also formed a poetry group with older monks in the Geshi program, who called themselves the “Sara Jey Secret Poets Society” because, as Weiss said, “Their teachers wanted them to spend all their time studying; they weren’t exposed to poetry.”

The classes started slow, Weiss said, because the students weren’t used to thinking creatively. Many had taken classes in English and science, but they were used to “rote” learning that didn’t involved imagery. The initial poems from prompts to visualize a cloud were laborious, he said, but when he asked the class to write about their family, something clicked.

“It’s amazing what happened. Many of these students have not seen their parents for anywhere from 10 to 13 years.”

Many of the students’ parents, Weiss said, are in Tibet. The villages in the area around the monastery house many Tibetan refugees. Others are too poor to travel long distances to visit.

“There’s a reservoir of loss, and yet they had no access to talk about it because that’s not the tradition,” Weiss said.

Weiss’ trip back to Maine “was like going through a wormhole,” he said, and he had trouble adjusting once he was back home. The pace of life, and the changes he experienced on his 14-week trip, made acclimating back to life in the U.S. a challenge.

Weiss plans to go back to India to visit Tharchin again in a few months. At his age he worries about the fact that medical care is hours away, and the conditions in India aren’t exactly conducive to a 72-year-old’s health. Garbage on the streets and disease are prevalent in the poverty-stricken area.

But those are minor worries. His main concern, Weiss said, is that this time, he’ll be tempted not to come back.

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