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Tibetan Buddhist chaplain helps heal the spirit

By Cindy Atoji Keene
Globe Correspondent / August 7, 2011

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Patients at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center can choose to have a chaplain visit for spiritual guidance or comfort. As one of the on-call interfaith chaplains, Tsering Ngodup said he finds patients are surprised when they hear he is a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, or lama.

Ngodup, 57, the spiritual director of the Bodhi Tree Institute in Cambridge, was born in Tibet in 1954, and like many Tibetans escaped Chinese rule by fleeing across the Himalayas into exile.

He was educated in Nepal and India, where he learned English and other foreign languages, and found himself in demand as an interpreter for Tibetan lamas traveling through Europe to teach. In 1983, Ngodup was authorized by an eminent Tibetan leader to start his own spiritual practice, beginning years of study and mentorship at religious centers.

But he laughs when asked when he will reach enlightenment. “I have no idea,’’ he said, “but I wish it would be soon.’’

Tibetan Buddhism is a very complex religion. Where should Americans start if they want to understand it?

For those with no connection with Buddhism, they think it is an obscure Asian religion with different rituals and ceremony, but those are mostly the ethical and cultural components. True Buddhism is a way of life - understanding how to change your mind from fear, anxiety, and doubt to reach a state of freedom and peace.

Your mentor or teacher has a long lineage in Tibetan Buddhism. You would not be able to be a lama without the blessing of such a person. Why is it so important to be “authorized’’ by someone else?

Lamas like myself have to go through years of studying Buddhist philosophy, then receive the endorsement of a spiritual master, which means you can then be viewed as a teacher. But no matter how informed or learned you are, we need someone there to constantly guide and correct our path.

Does being a lama mean that you can’t have a cellphone and other material possessions?

Of course I have a cellphone. You cannot reject what comes along because you will miss many things. Of course technology is not necessary, but the point is not to covet and desire because of greed.

Have you ever fallen asleep while meditating?

I meditate often during the day, and of course, if I have had a heavy meal, I might catch myself dozing off. It’s only human.