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Learning Tibetan

By Lydia Polzer

I remember the first time I looked at an A4-page filled with Tibetan script wondering how I’d ever be able to see it as anything other than alien squiggles. How would those patterns of curly strokes topped with little dashes ever turn into sounds in my head, then syllables, then words I actually understood? Learning a whole new alphabet made up of 36 letters, battling with unfamiliar pronounciations, puzzling over back-to-front sentence structures – I knew Tibetan would not exactly be easy to master. 

But Lama Zangmo always strongly encouraged all of us residents at Samye Dzong to try and learn the language. She told me once, that prior to going into her first retreat she had asked Akong Rinpoche how she should prepare. His one piece of advice apparently was “Learning some Tibetan would be very beneficial”. 

I think, initially I didn’t believe I would get far beyond making sense of the alphabet and maybe reading puja texts from the Tibetan script rather than having to rely on transliterations. Perhaps, I thought, after that I might get to grips with some dharma related vocabulary. After all it would be quite helpful to know WHAT I was chanting AS I was chanting it. “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” I’m no church-goer, but if ever I find myself in a situation where the Lord’s prayer is being said, the words have such an immediate impact on my mind. I wanted to relate to the refuge prayer, the Chenrezi text or the Green Tara praises in the same way. I may even have harbored some hopes of one day – in the long-distant future – being able to understand and even speak to someone like Drupon Rinpoche or Ringu Tulku in their mother tongue. 

Over the years Lama managed to enlist various Tibetan Samye Dzong residents in this mission to impart on us their language skills. Akong Rinpoche’s nephew Jigme Dorje did an amazing job of teaching quite a few of us the alphabet. Patiently and persistently. Later Karma, a young Tibetan art student, tried his best to improve our conversation skills.

In January Drukthar Gyal, an MA student in politics and anthropology at LSE and resident at Samye Dzong since August 2023, started a beginners, an intermediate and a Chenrezig text study class.

Once I had learned the basics from Jigme, I joined Esukhia. Many will know of this Tibetan language school in Dharamsala. The wonders of modern technology make it possible to be in London and have live classes with Tibetan teachers in India via video link! I must have had weekly one-to-one classes for at least a year or two - rising at the crack of dawn to fit in the lesson before work. The time difference made for very small windows of opportunity. 

I found the one-to-one format incredibly helpful. You have to be on the ball for the whole session, but you can also ask questions any time and things move at your own pace. And all that for the price of a coffee!

The real break-through came in the pandemic, when I was furloughed from work and - like everyone else - marooned at home. Norbu, a former Esukhia teacher, reached out to a group of his former students. He’d been in the US when the country locked down, so now he was in a small room somewhere in Florida with very little to do and offering to teach Tibetan online. For a few weeks we Zoom-called daily, trying to stick to speaking in Tibetan as much as possible. By the end we were sending short Tibetan emails back and forth to arrange lessons.

Alas, when work kicked back in again, things got busier than ever, Norbu flew back to Tibet and had to get back to his work, also. 

I’m all the more pleased to be able to get back to it now studying dharma texts with Drukthar. There’s a long way to go, but the squiggles definitely have turned into sounds in my head now and the sounds into words. And working hard to extract meaning from each line of the Chenrezig text makes me feel that little bit closer to the dharma. 


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