Tsering Phuntsok, a Tibetan Buddhist monk from India, has spent an unexpected summer in the small city of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, this year. He was scheduled to return to India in May, but travel restrictions resulting from the novel coronavirus pandemic have postponed his travel plans.
Phuntsok has been visiting Hopkinsville, population 31,577, since 2009 after a chance meeting with Hopkinsville Community College philosophy professor Dr. Ken Casey. Casey had spent a sabbatical in India in February 2009, when he lived with Phuntsok. Afterward, he invited Phuntsok to visit him and his students in Kentucky.
“Tsering and I were strangers and I lived with him for one month in February . I got to know him and his family,” Casey said. (Kentucky New Era)
In 2012, Casey brought students to meet with Phuntsok at his home in Dharamsala, northern India. That year, along with their time visiting Tibetan communities, the students participated in a service learning project through Lha Charitable Trust, a Tibetan-run social work agency, teaching English in exchange for learning about Tibetan culture and life.
By then, Phuntsok had become a fixture in the Hopkinsville community as a guest lecturer at the community college and he has continued his yearly visits to communities throughout western Kentucky.
In 2017, Phuntsok returned amid a period of marked hostility toward outsiders among many Americans. When asked about this, he noted that the political world has its ups and downs and that: “I think everybody is seeking peace and seeking to bring the world peace, but the Buddha says that it is very important to bring yourself peace first, so you can make your family peaceful, and your community, and after that the world.” (WKMS)
This year, Phuntsok regarded his extra time in Kentucky as an opportunity for practice. “All this time in Kentucky is a retreat for me,” he said. “It’s a good place to retreat. There’s a lot of trees, a lot of birds. Also, so many nice people.” (Kentucky New Era)
Alongside his personal Buddhist practice, Phuntsok has continued his engagement with the community to the best of his ability. One of his projects has been to create a daily puja, or devotional offering, to pray for healing for those in the community who have been impacted by the coronavirus.
“The pandemic has given me some kind of opportunity to continue prayer. . . . I decided to do something that was part of Buddhist practice. If you can physically not go see people, you can still do [something] from your own place wherever you are,” he said. “We had two different fires—one was for healing, one was for the people who [had] passed away.” (Kentucky New Era)
Phuntsok has been a practicing monk for more than 30 years, having entered the Nyingmapa monastery in Bir, India, at age 16 in 1987. He spent 17 years receiving training in the full traditional curriculum of the Nyingma tradition, including meditation, Buddhist scripture and philosophy, tantric ritual, ritual dance, and music. He also received teachings from His Holiness the Dalai Lama during his time in Dharamsala.
In 2017, Phuntsok and Casey used their time together in Hopkinsville to present a talk titled “Loving your Enemies: Buddhist and Christian Perspectives.” They compared and contrasted practices in the two belief systems and addressed questions of why and how we should love enemies when it seems to be contrary to human psychology.
Casey, a Christian, said that their time together allowed them to bond over ritual and meditation. “We started praying—me once a day, him twice a day,” Casey said. “His services are in Tibetan. I’m picking up maybe every 100th word at the most. Then, I would say a little prayer of my own. It’s been a learning experience on both sides. It’s been really rich.” (Kentucky New Era)
Speaking of the Buddha’s teachigns, Phuntsok said: “It’s very easy and very basic Buddhist tradition. This all came from Buddha. So, what Buddha taught was enjoy your life. Enjoy your life because life is so precious. . . . If life is precious, then we need to take care of it.” (Kentucky New Era)
Buddhist monk spends summer educating, praying in Kentucky (Kentucky New Era)
HCC faculty and students leave for study abroad experience in India on Friday (Hopkinsville Community College)
Tibetan Monk Makes Rounds In Region For The 8th Year In A Row (WKMS)
Buddhist Monk returns to Hopkinsville Community College (Buddhist Channel)