Emeritus Professor Teaches Philosophy to Tibetan Monks

by Sarah Tschiggfrie, Washington and Lee University, December 3, 2008

Lexington, Virginia (USA) -- The year before Harrison Pemberton was due to retire after teaching philosophy at Washington and Lee University for 42 years, a casual remark changed everything.

“Why don’t you come to India and teach us Western philosophy?” asked Shamar Rinpoche, the second-highest-ranking lama of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. “I wanted to blurt out, ‘Say when!’ ” writes Pemberton in the introduction to his new book, The Buddha Meets Socrates: A Philosophical Journal.

In the book Pemberton describes how in the fall of 2004, he took that offered journey to Kalimpong, India, and for five weeks, five days a week, taught a group of young monks the key concepts of Western philosophy. They were a challenge.

“I would try to run my class like I would here at W&L,” he says, “where we have a good exchange and bright students raise sizzling questions. That’s what keeps us alive. Not so in the East. The problem, which I had discovered earlier when teaching in Hong Kong, is that students in the East won’t talk. They see asking the teacher a question as an insult because it means the teacher hasn’t been clear. And while I did sometimes get the beginning of a hesitant question from the monks, they were very much like my students in Hong Kong.”

Among those students was someone very special: the Karmapa, then 21 years old.

“Everyone thinks the Dalai Lama is the head of all Buddhism, but he isn’t,” says Pemberton. “He’s head of the Geluk school, but there are also three other schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The Karmapa is head of the Karma Kagyu school, which is both older and larger. However, since the Dalai Lama is also the king of Tibet, he has more of a political role and is better known in the world.”

In fact, the main reason Shamar Rinpoche asked Pemberton to go to Kalimpong was to be a tutor to His Holiness the Karmapa. Although the young man was part of the class, Pemberton also met with him for a private conversation after each class for an additional hour, and it is those conversations that formed the basis for his book.

Pemberton found the young man to be intelligent, steady and even-tempered. He describes the other monks in the class as lively, happy young people. They are the same age as W&L undergraduates and live, eat and have classes together for years. “I’m sure there are little strains here and there,” says Pemberton, “but overall they are a very affable, even jolly, bunch of young folk, and very polite and deferential.

“But it was the camaraderie and really, happiness, that they showed and the way in which they lived their lives that impressed me most. They don’t have material possessions, but they don’t miss them. There is evidence that the Buddhist way yields more happiness than you might expect. I would go so far as to say Buddhists tend to be happier than Westerners. They don’t have any of our tension and strain.

“They also have a great sense of humor, and yet then they can be very serious. So they have the full range and to me it seems more wholesome. I never saw an angry monk.”

Pemberton says he took away from the experience “the ability to question more easily something I took for granted-- the Western way of thinking. Seeing how it contrasts with the Buddhist way of thinking sharpened it for me and gave me a basis for calling it into question.

“I also think the Buddhist monks know their own position more clearly by seeing it in contrast to the West. So we look at it this way, and they look at it that way. I wonder how it really is.”

Pemberton describes his book as being not too technical, and aimed at anyone who would recognize Plato and Socrates and has some interest in Buddhism. He says there are about 27 million people in the U.S. who are interested in Buddhism. “Not that they are committed Buddhists, but they’re interested. That’s a lot of people.”

One person who highly recommends Pemberton’s book is James Mahon, W&L associate professor of philosophy and department head. “They broke the mold when they made Harry Pemberton,” said Mahon. “Now in his 80s, he is still as knowledgeable, as engaging, as imaginative and as humorous about philosophy as anyone I know. After he returned from teaching young Buddhist monks in India, we brought him back as professor emeritus to teach about one class per year. The students love him dearly. I hope that many more people get to know Harry through reading his wonderful and entertaining book, one that combines philosophy and autobiography. He is a great storyteller."

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