Sakya Losal Choe Dzong

Tibetan Buddhist Society of Canberra

Of Trees and Truths: the Ordination of Ngawang Tenzin (Alex Anderson)

By Joseph Frawley on 20th November 2017, 19:12

A new resident Monk, Tenzin, arrived at SIBA in October this year. He carries with him an incredible story that we would love to share with you. At our request, Tenzin has written this Biography and we are proud to share it with you.


In a way, the forest was my first meditation teacher. Sometimes, when walking in the beautiful rainforests of Far North Queensland, I would simply stop and sit still, until my human presence seemed forgotten. I listened to the inhabitants going about their lives, and saw things that might otherwise have remained hidden: a rare tree kangaroo with her joey, golden bowerbirds displaying, and once an endangered tiger quoll passed within metres.

At the time, I was a researcher at James Cook University, studying the impacts of climate change on rainforest birds. Through ecology, I gained an intellectual appreciation of the interdependence of all life, but I also became familiar with the science showing how devastating the impacts of unbridled human consumption can be. This reinforced my wish to contribute in some way to protecting the natural world, something inherited from my father, a marine biologist who dedicated much of his working life to the protection of whales and the creation of marine sanctuaries.

It also seemed natural to me to become involved in campaigns for social justice and sustainability, especially climate change. In both academia and activism though, I found unsatisfying themes; anger and "attachment to view" manifest in political activism, and unhealthy levels of stress in academia: most of an ecologist's time seemed spent in front of a computer, programming or writing competitive grant applications, rather than enjoying the wild places we love. I sought distraction in travel, in martial arts and in dance, including seven months living in Brazil, but found no lasting solution.

Like many, it was a simple Buddhist meditation class recommended by a friend that gave me a glimpse of a different approach to life. This encounter with the Dharma was very timely, as it was followed closely by the illness and death of my father from cancer, precipitating a period of intense examination of my priorities in life.

Not long afterward, in 2009, I met Lama Choedak Rinpoche at an annual calm-abiding retreat offered near Townsville, fittingly held in the rainforest village of Paluma. Far from contradicting what I had learned in ecology, the Dharma seemed to reveal interdependence in an entirely new light. What I found was a path with the power to transform an intellectual concept of interconnection into a way of being in the world, with potential benefits for not only myself, but for family, the community, and the planet.

I began to practice daily, but persevered with my research, completing my P.hd just a week before traveling to Kathmandu for a meditation retreat at Kopan in late 2011. This was the beginning of a pilgrimage in India and Nepal that lasted nine months, including a vipashyana retreat at Sarnath, a Kalachakra transmission from His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama in Bodh Gaya, and a month of solo trekking in the Annapurna conservation region. I also encountered a wonderfully kind and skillful teacher of Hatha Yoga, which soon became an integral part of my daily practice. Importantly, throughout this time a book about the Buddha's life called "Old Path White Clouds" became a touchstone, introducing me to the teachings of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, founder of the Plum Village tradition.

On returning to Australia in 2012, I worked as a freelance consultant with indigenous conservation groups in Cape York, while also publishing papers from my doctoral thesis and traveling widely for conferences. I eventually took a job in Norway, focussed on Colombian rainforests, but began to see increasingly that juggling academia with a healthy lifestyle, let alone healthy relationships, was a challenge. This seemed to me to be due partly to the culture of competition and self-promotion in academia, and also simply to something called "modern life." The Dharma had remained important to me, and I saw that I had come to a cross-roads.

The dream to one day visit Plum Village had also grown, and in late 2014, shortly before moving to Norway, it was in the shade of my first meditation teacher, the rainforest in Far North Queensland, that a chance meeting with a visiting professor gave me the opportunity. Through this I later traveled to France to give a guest lecture at a university only a few hours from Plum Village, and arranged a visit. Against the backdrop of beautiful autumn colours, I was enchanted by the pervading atmosphere of peace in the monastery; through the energy of mindfulness, simple acts like sharing tea, walking a forest path, or preparing a meal can be transformed at Plum Village into a doorway to meditative insight and true freedom. I returned soon after for their three-month Winter retreat, a challenging but also very joyful time among like-minded souls, and the experience crystallised my aspiration to be involved in building sustainable dharma practice community.

Putting my research career on hold, I in late 2015 I joined the ordination program at Plum village. I stayed there for the next years, living and working in "upper hamlet" and training to become a novice monk. I shared a two-bedroom cabin in the oak forest, with eleven other aspiring brothers from ten countries. I worked on the organic "happy farm" growing medicinal herbs for the community, cooked meals for hundreds, and helped to offer retreats for the thousands of lay practitioners who visit the hamlet, all in the beautiful setting of the Dordogne countryside in the South of France.

Near the end of the training period, however, it became clear that distance from family would be an obstacle to my staying in France for the long-term. It was also hard to find experienced Vajrayana and Hatha yoga teachers to support my continuing practice in these traditions, but before I realised this, senior brothers intuited that ordination there may not be the best choice for someone with my nomadic heart.

Finding myself with neither community nor career made for a difficult end to 2016. I found solace with family and with surfboard on the north coast of New South Wales, but thankfully it wasn't long before a White Tara retreat at SIBA gave me an opportunity to reconnect with Lama Choedak Rinpoche, my Vajrayana practice, and with the sangha there.

Inspired once again, on Rinpoche's advice I travelled to Dehra Dun in Northern India to attend the two-month Lamdre transmission being offered by His Holiness the 42nd Sakya Trizin in March. Being immersed for eight hours a day in Highest Yoga Tantra teachings from a lineage master, surrounded by monks, nuns and dedicated lay practitioners from all over the world, I soon felt a rekindling of monastic aspiration. Conversations with khenpos, and a Western ex-monk with many years' experience, also convinced me that ordination in the Sakya tradition could provide the combination of support, guidance and flexibility I sought to continue my studies and deepen my practice.

After a month of intense reflection, Rinpoche was again wonderfully supportive, arranging things with Shabdrung Rinchen Paljor Rinpoche in Kathmandu, who performed the ceremony on May 28th, 2017. I was ordained as a bhikhu in the monastery founded by Kyabje Chogye Trichen Rinpoche, overlooked by the beautiful stupa at Boudhanath, and given the unassuming name of "Ngawang Tenzin", which translates as "powerful-voiced, holder of the teachings", but which I prefer to think of as meaning "study hard, and be careful what you say"!

For me, the ordination ceremony marked the end of a journey, throughout which I have depended on the support of family, teachers, friends and sangha at every step. I am especially indebted to my mother Beverly Sibthorpe, my ecologist colleagues who taught me the ways of the forest, the brothers and sisters of Plum Village, the Tibetan Buddhist Society of Canberra and SIBA family, and of course to Lama Choedak Rinpoche.

It also marks another journey just begun, and I sincerely hope that with the guidance of my teachers I can practise to be worthy of these robes and name, and to be of some small benefit to the sangha and to all beings.

With metta,

Mysuru, Karnataka, July 4th, 2017