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Digesting the Dharma

Text of Yeshe's piece in the Winter 2022 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Guide

Winter 2022 issue of Buddhadharma
Cover art by Tserin Sherpa

I wish I could tell you that my love of language—of transferring the sense and heft and lushness of one tongue to another—rose unbidden, ripe, and startling, like a Botticelli goddess emerging from a sea. ¡Ay, cuanto lo deseo! A better storyteller than I would fashion all manner of fables out of my fascination—habla claro, mija, es pasión–for the English language.

The truth, however, is pedestrian, cobbled together by necessity in supermarkets, schools, and Social Security offices. A child of a Spanish journalist and a Cuban law school graduate who fled Cuba after Fidel Castro took power, I was born in New York, only to be whisked immediately to Caracas, where my father and others struggled to revive the Cuban magazine Bohemia.

Familia en Caracas
My family, in Caracas

When that venture failed, my family, now including my younger brother, returned to New York to start anew. At five years old, I began learning to navigate this land whose customs differed from ours, whose etiquette cast my family as boisterous, whose politics peered at us askance, and whose language I did not know, while everyone else did.

Except my parents.

No sooner did I learn English, in the impossible, seamless way children have with language, than I became my parents’ official translator. At shops, parent–teacher conferences, bank counters, and bureaucracies, I strained to embrace words too large for my scrawny arms to carry all the way to a parental ear. I wish I could tell you I was proud, that this helper role filled me with joy. Desgraciadamente, no. I dreaded every instance.

Decades later, I arrived at Pullahari Monastery in Nepal laden with advanced degrees in biology and law, fluent in transposing complex technical jargon to modern parlance in sentences worthy of the nineteenth-century British literature I devoured. My mind was honed to brittleness—un huesito reseco—primed to weigh terms against each other in a dry quest for precision.

Yeshe, reading, in Caracas

Ah, but the poetry. La poesia. Where was the poetry?

At the monastery, flowers, blooming red against azure skies, perfumed the air. Gongs sounded, rhythmic and compelling, fussing the skirts of monks in the lanes and along the stairs. At dharma teachings, English came second. Tibetan held pride of place, washing over me as I sat awed and cross-legged before a golden stupa studded with coral, turquoise, amber.

My days passed in an impressionistic blur of study and practice, chanting, singing dharma songs—¡baila yogini!—and amassing many thousands of full-body prostrations—a far cry from pinning myself to a desk, tracking my labors in six minute intervals. Dime con quién andas y te digo quien eres.

Slowly, imperceptibly, I eased into my body. Not a body consigned to the margins—aqui que blanca, allí demasiado trigueña—nor one aching to assimilate, camouflaging its truths to meet unspoken expectations, divining assumptions that no amount of fluency could decipher.

Here, my tawny skin and straight hair signaled belonging. Natives addressed me in Nepali. Shopkeepers offered me local prices. I floated into viharas without obstacle, pastel shawl fluttering. My meals were served spicy. This world reached out to meet me, just as I was.

Indulgent, I waited for words to come to me. No need to chase them down, fileting them, scooping out all I could find. I nibbled at them, juice dribbling down my chin, digesting them in the sun, resonances spilling forward with the languid gait of organic things.

The Rigpe Dorje Institute Program for International Students stressed a natural approach to Tibetan language acquisition. Grammar was learned in situ, so to speak, rather than from rules. Operating in tandem with contemplative analysis of dharma teachings, this approach altered my relationship with translation radically. In time, I came to own being a translator, even to love it, amidst the strangeness of a language wholly unrelated to either English or Spanish. The embeddedness of Tibetan enchants me, how words elusive without context take sense in relation to surrounding words.

First in practice liturgies, then classical texts, then oral teachings, the delicate magic of not merely translating words, but transmitting significance between languages, knit itself into my sinews. Slowly, my translation process became embodied: breathe in—al inhalar, Tibetan—tibetano. Breathe out—al exhalar, English—inglés.

To this day, I experience my language work as visceral, alive, playful—an exuberant dance of wonder, improbability, and unrequited yearning. What I do feels less like translating than enfleshing—ingesting dharma, sensing it in the marrow of my bones, and nurturing words to evoke that experience, until one rises, a pearl from an oyster, able to elicit the experience in another.

I highly recommend this eating of dharma.

You may not see my pearl as one of great value. Or another’s pearl. Or even the Buddha’s. Take it up still. Turn it this way, then that. There is no disrespect in this. We are not meant to accept what’s on offer, predigested, like a fledgling in a nest, waiting hungrily at the receiving end of the alchemy. Put it under the jeweler’s loupe and take its measure. Not just once. Again and again, with gusto. Disfruta. Take it in. Enjoy.

Sure, you may prove yourself right. ¡Ándate con cuidado! But if you are truly fortunate, you will be surprised by the unexpected dazzle lying unseen in one simple pearl.

Digesting the dharma lets us absorb it deep in our being. Send it on to our cells. This is embodied dharma, live and electric, coursing through our body with significance. Guiding our way in the world.

The precision and the poetry. El ritmo y el baile.



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