I first met Khenpo Pema Wangdak in 1986, when I was looking for a teacher to help me learn Tibetan for a journey I took the following year.
Although I did learn some basic phrases (including “You are pretty” and “I am from the United States”), I discovered that Tibetan is an extremely difficult language to learn, at least for me.
But I always enjoyed visiting Khenpo Pema in New York, where since 1989 he has been director of the Vikramasila Foundation, a nonprofit charitable organization dedicated to bringing meditation and the wisdom of the Buddha to the West.
Besides teaching dharma (the tenets of Buddhism) around the world, Khenpo Pema has also established schools for young Tibetans in Nepal and India — at the Pema Ts’al Schools and the Pema Ts’al Sakya Monastic Institute. He is the recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor for his international humanitarian activities.
A Buddhist monk since the age of 7, Khenpo Pema and his family escaped from a small village in Tibet in 1959 and eventually resettled in a refugee camp in South India. He enjoys travel, mainly because he says that he is always fascinated by new ideas and new possibilities.
What Is Mindful Travel?
As a lifelong traveler, I am aware that seeing the world can be a mind-and-soul-expanding experience — except when it sometimes seems that adversity dogs every step. I knew that Khenpo Pema would have some great advice about how to overcome obstacles and to make travel a deeper opportunity to grow and learn. He is constantly fascinated by and curious about the world and the people in it, and his enthusiasm radiates. He also has the ability to explain Buddhist concepts in simple and understandable terms, and with a gentle sense of humor. Following is some advice for making the road smoother for your journeys.
To Be Or Not To Be … A Tourist
“I never regret looking at impractical things. I never see any knowledge as worthless.” Khenpo Pema says that he does not feel the need to be a traditional tourist when he travels. The one time he visited Barcelona, he said, “They picked me up at the airport and we went straight to an apartment where I taught for three days.” At the end of the third day, he was returned to the airport. “I never saw Barcelona,” he said. But that was fine with him.
Pema explained that if something does catch his interest — architecture, for one — he can become the ultimate tourist. “When I visit a Buddhist temple in Taiwan,” he says, “I am more interested in how they built their monastery. I am always looking for new ideas, and I always find them.”
He has traveled to Sweden, where in the past he has visited the Volvo factory and especially enjoyed a trip to a ball bearing company. Of his experience, he says, “Learning how things work keeps me entertained.”
Being mindful of beauty is also part of travel. One of Khenpo Pema’s favorite journeys is to the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington State. “It is so peaceful; it is very tempting to imagine living there,” he says.
Retrain Your Mind
“Oh, you have to wait six hours in the airport when they tell you that your flight is canceled? No problem.”
Mind training meditation, or lojong, as it is called in Tibetan, involves methods for transforming the mind by cultivating beneficial mental habits. Khenpo Pema meditates on a daily basis in order to train his mind.
With mindfulness, Khenpo Pema believes “you learn to appreciate what is good at the moment. You also learn to let go when it is not good.”
He told me, “To change inside is not easy. And changing your mindset does not mean that you will always escape negative emotions. You feel what you feel. That’s okay, as long as you do not follow those thoughts or try to justify them. When you travel, always prepare because things can go wrong. Then when they go wrong, you can smile.”
Khenpo Pema compares changing one’s mindset to programming an iPhone: “If you set your mind, it becomes part of your positive mindset. I have no psychological or emotional problems at all wherever I am. And I’m never bored. I’m like a kid.”
“One should never expect only pleasant experiences when you travel.”
Perhaps you just missed your flight or the airlines lost your luggage — Khenpo Pema believes that this just might turn out to be the best part of a trip because misfortunes necessitate finding creative solutions.
Khenpo Pema also believes that being faced with obstacles in life is ultimately beneficial to one as a person. One of the many benefits of travel is that it provides opportunities to practice being patient and nonjudgmental.
Even if he encounters a rude travel agent, Khenpo Pema retains his balance: “If I am mindful, I have no problem if people are rude. With mindfulness you let it go. With meditation, that independence is there.”
He acknowledges that “getting to the point where delays and challenges do not disrupt one’s life is not easy.” Pema says that “If everything goes well, you may become soft. Mistakes that you learn from make you better able to face problems in the future.” In fact, he told me, “If something doesn’t work, try something else — and try hundreds of times.”
Learning how to accept the rough patches and constant change is often an opportunity for growth. The goal, through meditation and study, is to cultivate a happiness that is not dependent on external conditions, whether you’re traveling or at home.
How To Experience Technology As A Spiritual Aid
Fifteen years ago, Khenpo jokingly told me that when a friend asked him how GPS worked, he told him that “a little plane flies above the car and lets me know where I am and where to go.”
Although many spiritual people see technology as the enemy of mindfulness, Pema believes that traveling with technology has both benefits and drawbacks.
Although he may have his iPhone or laptop along when he travels, Khenpo Pema thinks that overuse of technology sometimes makes experiences less than wondrous. “Now we are so saturated with images,” he says, “that freshness and touching and seeing sometimes decrease.” For him, constant travel can take a toll. “I travel so much,” he says, that “globalizing the mind sometimes dissipates emotional connections.”
On the other hand, technology can help when travel is delayed. Being stuck somewhere is a great opportunity to read, write, and make calls, Khenpo Pema told me. He went on to share that being sidelined in an airport surrounded by new people helps make his mind “fresh.”
How To Talk To A Tibetan Monk (Or Anyone Else) While Traveling
“If people want to talk, I am very interested. If they do not, that is good, too.”
Khenpo Pema notes that people from different cultures may have different ways of communicating or acting, and he warns against judging others only from one’s own experience and knowledge. He is open to hearing what you have to say if he ends up sitting next to you on a plane — and he believes that the older generation has much to share with the younger.
However, how people treat Khenpo Pema is not of primary interest to him. As he explains, “When I travel, sometimes people are so nice. Next time I’ll be somewhere where people may not be so generous, but I don’t feel bad. People do what they can. One should never expect only pleasant experiences when you travel.” He continued, “If I am mindful, I have no problem if someone is rude. With mindfulness you let it go. If you meditate, the independence will be there.”
“This is It! This is precious!” From Khenpo Pema’s point of view, travel provides a constant series of new opportunities to experience the world and to open one’s heart to let love and compassion unfold.
“The Buddha,” said Khenpo Pema, “teaches on every subject, especially about mind. And one of the major teachings is on impermanence. Everything is so precious since we are not going to have this forever. That is why appreciation grows. Everything that is constructed dissolves. We learn to appreciate things: This is it!”
Editor’s Note: Want more mindful travel inspiration? Consider What Is Slow Travel And 7 Reasons Why You Need To Try It, 9 Tips For Keeping A Memorable Travel Journal, and The Children’s Book That Inspired This Writer’s Love Of Travel.