Buddhist monk Tsering Phuntsok, a Hopkinsville Community College guest lecturer, was supposed to return home to India in May, but his travel plans have been postponed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Since the health crisis canceled his flight to Nepal three times, Phuntsok has enjoyed his colleagues’ hospitality, good food and fresh black coffee every morning.
“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.”
A practicing Buddhist monk for more than 25 years, Phuntsok entered the Nyingmapa Monastery in Bir, India, at age 16. For the first 17 years he studied and practiced in the Nyingmapa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, receiving training in meditation, Buddhist scripture and philosophy, tantric ritual, lama dancing, music and Buddhist ritual in general.
For the past 11 years, Phuntsok has traveled to the commonwealth to visit HCC religion and philosophy professor Dr. Ken Casey. The two met while Casey was on sabbatical in India.
“Tsering and I were strangers and I lived with him for one month in February (2009). I got to know him and his family,” Casey said.
Casey described Phuntsok as a “very social person,” but COVID-19 has restricted many of their outings and gatherings.
“(He is) very funny and likes to joke,” Casey said. “We’ve kind of pulled in our horns here and been very careful. Ordinarily he’s going to eat with this person and that person, but not now — not this time.”
Phuntsok said he has observed a change in the community because of the virus.
“This time is very different,” he said. “There’s so much challenge that we have never experienced before. Many people passed away. Many people got sick. Because of lockdown, people are not used to it and they want to go out with friends. It’s a very different time for us.”
Inspired to help those who were suffering, Phuntsok set up an altar at Casey’s home to observe the Puja, a daily prayer ceremony, to pray for healing for those who have been impacted by the coronavirus and other challenges.
“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 passed away.”
Casey, who is a Christian, said spending several extra weeks with Phuntsok allowed them to bond over prayer and conversation.
“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,” Casey added. “It’s been really rich.”
This summer Phuntsok has hosted virtual discussions at several area colleges and universities. On Tuesday, Hopkinsville Community College’s Religion and Philosophy Club hosted Phuntsok for a virtual lecture about matters of religious and philosophical interest.
Phuntsok spoke about “The Four Mindfulness Trainings for Compassionate Living.” In Buddhist teachings, the four postures can help an individual’s own mental well-being and their resilience in learning to help others, according to an HCC release. In Tibetan, the four postures are named du, dug, sa and gnell. Translated into English, they are walking, sitting, eating and sleeping.
“It’s very easy and very basic Buddhist tradition,” he said. “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.”
Phuntsok is scheduled to fly back to Nepal next week, pending another airport delay. Casey said during his time here Phuntsok has revitalized the religion courses for his students.
“He has a good understanding of American mindset, American students,” Casey said. “I just think we have a real treasure in him coming and his ties to Kentucky. We can’t take all of our students to Nepal, but we can bring Nepal to them.”