In Malaysia with Anam Thubten
My blog begins as I enter the Fire Monkey year in Malaysia.
I am in Kuala Lumpur attending programs with Anam Thubten, a Tibetan lama in the Nyingma lineage and the spiritual director of Dharmata Foundation. Rinpoche is here for the opening of Dharmata House Malaysia and is offering a nine-day meditation retreat.
Anam Thubten was born and raised in eastern Tibet, but is fluent and rooted in Western culture having lived in Northern California for over two decades. Based in the San Francisco Bay area, he is a highly respected teacher and published author. His books include No Self, No Problem, The Magic of Awareness and Your Original Face, a collection of talks transcribed into Chinese. He is featured in the 2012 documentary film, When the Iron Bird Flies, Tibetan Buddhism Arrives in the West and has taught at institutions such as UC Berkeley, Stanford, Harvard, Spirit Rock, Google Corp, and the University of Virginia.
With a large temple outside of Berkeley, a newly established retreat center in the mountains of Big Sur, and over forty satellite sanghas throughout the USA, Anam Thubten is amongst the foremost leading teachers in the second generation of Tibetan masters establishing dharma in the West.
In the last few years, he has begun to teach internationally with annual retreats and Dharmata sanghas that practice together in France, Germany, Poland, South Korea, Hong Kong and Malaysia.
Here in Malaysia, I am touched by the spirit of the community of practitioners and marvel at how swiftly Anam Thubten’s activity has taken root. Students from Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Italy, Mexico and the USA are in attendance.
I am energized by the ways in which dharma manifests in the world and am reminded that great masters respond to the needs of beings, teaching in ways suitable for the time and place. From time immemorial, this is how Buddhism was transmitted and evolved across diverse cultures.
In Malaysia, I am witnessing dharma unfolding in our modern world through a most unexpected, genuine and breathtaking way.
Dance with No Dancer
The birthing of the Dharmata Malaysia sangha is such a charming and magical story. As a Charya Nritya practitioner (Newar Buddhist dance) with a background in Butoh and performance art, the interconnectedness of the mandala has captured my heart and imagination.
Brian Tee, affectionately called “Tai Kor” or Big Brother in the community, is the hero of our story. He is a seeker, a bodhisattva and true yogi. Brian appears as a lion, powerful, stable and courageous with a boundless heart. The depth of his eyes reveal that at 44, he’s lived many lives, giving up everything on the path, again and again, burning to awaken. His demeanor exudes humility and gentleness, while his actions cut through and manifest directly. Brian is truly a big brother to lean on.
Before becoming a student of Rinpoche, Brian describes himself as a spiritual shopper—searching everywhere for the right teacher and path. Outwardly, he had become a successful banker living in Singapore. But his life had no meaning in the grind of endless work. In search of truth, he converted to Catholicism and was a devout follower. Many people thought he would become a priest. He had a successful career, was holy in religion, but found no satisfaction in the world. He asked himself, “Is there more to life than money and career?”
Inwardly, Brian heard voices whispering, “What is truth? What is the meaning of life?” He knew there was no answer in the material world. Completely pushed to the limit, he left everything behind—his work, his religion, the life he built in Singapore and returned to KL a new man. In 2005, he came across Sogyal Rinpoche’s Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. He felt a deep connection with Vajrayana and began exploring Buddhist centers.
Along the way, he attended a performance of Chinese Buddhist monks chanting. He appreciated the singing, but wondered if dharma could be presented through dance. This was a strange idea, as Brian had no dance background. As he watched the performance, he had a vision that dance could be a powerful method to experience dharma and introduce people to the path. Over the years, he encountered many misconceptions and wrong views about Buddhism and felt most modern people would not accept an invitation to go to a temple, but they would enjoy a performance. At that moment, he made a wish to bring dance onto the path.
When I asked Brian how he came to meet Rinpoche, he told me it was through watching the trailer of the film, When the Iron Bird Flies. Rinpoche says, “We are forced to be enlightened, otherwise we will be crazy.” Those words penetrated deep and Brian felt he had found the teacher he was searching for. He googled Anam Thubten and found videos and his book No Self, No Problem.
Brian contacted Rinpoche through email and began a dialog which led to eventually taking Refuge with a small group in Malaysia via Skype. This was a completely new approach for Anam Thubten. However, he felt the sincerity of the practitioners and agreed to teach them beyond the ordinary restrictions of time and space. He welcomed the use of technology as skillful means.
The relationship deepened as Brian read Rinpoche’s book, No Self, No Problem. He was struck by the passage, “Dance until there is no more dancer. It is the dance without dancer, this is how great mystics dance.”
These words became the key to unlock what he had been searching for. The poem was a catalyst for Brian to write a script for a theatrical dance performance based on Rinpoche’s teachings. But Brian was faced with the challenge of how to produce such an event, as he was not a dancer nor part of a dance community. Discussing his ideas, he heard about a Buddhist Butoh artist named Lee Swee Kwong. The two met and Brian shared the script he wrote.
Lee is a master who has devoted his life to the exploration of movement. The passage, “Dance until there is no more dancer,” touched him deeply. Lee was startled by the wisdom conveying the essence that only a sacred dancer would understand. He agreed to choreograph a performance of Brian’s script and bring dharma dance onto the stage. Within two months, the piece was completed.
Offering the guru a mandala of post modern sacred dance, the eclectic association of free thinking Buddhists and artists requested Anam Thubten to turn the dharma wheel in Malaysia. Rinpoche accepted and a deep fellowship was forged.
Bodhisattva with No Boundaries
Anam Thubten is a creative innovator in the Buddhist world. He is a modern lama, that cuts through culture, religion and ideology and presents dharma in a direct, experiential way. Over the years, he has dropped the titles of Tulku and Rinpoche in his name and edited his biography to a bare minimum. There is no mention of his previous incarnations or accomplishments. Dressed simply in khaki pants, burgundy shirt, a white shawl and a smile that lights up the universe, he presents himself humbly, as a guide sharing the path of dharma.
Students drawn to his activity often have no idea of his religious title or status, nor do they care. They are drawn by his teachings that dissolve the layers of ego identity and affliction, and are introduced to the nature of mind. His ways hark back to the tradition of the old mahasiddhas. In our modern world, Anam Thubten is a genuine yogi, going from place to place, teaching without agenda, meeting the minds of beings without contrivance.
His methods are working and his teachings have spread like wildfire in the West. From big cities to small conservative towns, Anam Thubten is inspiring people of all walks of life to meditate and practice dharma. In the US, a predominantly Judeo-Christian society, he’s so popular that venues cannot contain him. Registration for select residential retreats is managed by lottery, with no preference given to long-time students.
The Dharmata temple located in Point Richmond, California is a beautiful old Christian church that was converted into a Buddhist center. The chapel known as Dhyana Hall is spacious and understated in its aesthetics and beauty. When one enters the sanctuary the focus is not on religious iconography or tradition, but on the universal teachings of the Buddha, which transcend culture and religion. Rinpoche has abandoned the tradition of students offering prostrations before teachings and has exchanged the elaborate Tibetan throne for a teaching chair. Students remain seated when he enters and exits the hall, greeting him in silence with a simple bow.
A true bodhisattva with no boundaries, Anam Thubten teaches skillfully with an open heart, using whatever methods are necessary. Thus, Rinpoche’s first public teaching in Kuala Lumpur was not at a Buddhist center, but at the theater with contemporary performance artists, sharing real dharma in a meaningful way.
Dharmata Foundation made a short film of Rinpoche’s collaborative visit to Malaysia with excerpts of the dharma dance. Check it out!