Did you ever think that you might benefit from travel advice from a 65-year-old Tibetan monk? It does make sense: the image of a religious Buddhist spiritual leader (Khenpo is an honorary title) is one of a pure soul floating above day-to-day irritations and life challenges. But he would be the first to tell you that it is not always easy to face the physical difficulties and deprivations of travel. The mental trials? Well, that’s another story.
Khenpo Pema has been traveling for much of his life. A Buddhist monk since the age of 7, his family escaped from a small village in Tibet in 1959 and eventually resettled in a refugee camp in South India. Through the years he has established a center for Tibetan orphans in India and a school in Nepal. He has been teaching Western students for more than four decades and continues to travel from his home base in New York City to dharma centers around the world.
I first met Khenpo Pema in 1986, when I wanted to learn some basic Tibetan phrases before a trip to Tibet. Khenpo Pema was a very patient teacher and misinterpreted my early facility with the language as talent; unfortunately, none of it stuck. I did remember one phrase when I traveled in Tibet soon after: “You are very pretty,” which I said to everyone I met. Khenpo Pema told me that no one would ever say this in Tibet but that he could understand how it would amuse them.
Why Travel? Because “This is It!!”
Khenpo Pema travels to teach, but he also finds travel mostly a pleasure—he is constantly fascinated by and curious about what he has learned about the world and by people. Travel is, in many ways, pure inspiration.
“I am obsessed with ideas! I get hundreds and thousands of ideas when I travel. And you always have to keep trying to make things happen,” he says. “If something doesn’t work, try something else—try hundreds of times. Mistakes are good. If everything goes well you become soft. Mistakes you learn from make you better able to face problems in the future.”
“Buddha,” says 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! This is precious. You learn to appreciate but learn to let go when it is not good.”
How Travel Has Changed for Him
Pema believes that technology has changed the experience of travel. Fifteen years ago, Khenpo jokingly told me that, when his friend asked how GPS worked during a drive to my home for lunch, he told him that “a little plane flies above the car and lets me know where I am and where to go.”
Now, besides his GPS, Pema usually has his iPhone and laptop along. Because of that, he says, experiences have sometimes become less wondrous. “Now we are saturated with images,” he says. “That freshness and touching and seeing is sometimes not there, in my case.” Also, 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 has been an outlet for him when he experiences travel delays. Khenpo Pema told me that being stuck somewhere is a great opportunity to read, write, make calls—and he believes that being sidelined in an airport makes work easier because when he isn’t at home and is surrounded by new people, his mind “is fresh.”
How You Can Change Your Attitude When You Travel (Because Your Mind is Like an iPhone)
Meaningful travel may require us to change our attitudes and to be open to new ways of reacting to the world. These changes, Khenpo Pema believes, take work. “The great part of Buddha’s teaching,” he says, “is that we learn to put our mind on a certain setting. It’s like using an iPhone—set your mind and it becomes part of your mindset. I have no psychological or emotional problem at all wherever I am. Oh, six hours you have to wait in airport when they tell me that your flight is cancelled? No problem. And I’m never bored, I’m like a kid.”
In order to develop such an attitude requires learning mindfulness. For this, Khenpo Pema meditates on a daily basis. “Getting to the point where delays and challenges do not disrupt one’s life,” he says, “is not easy. To change inside is not easy. The hardest thing to change is the way that your mind works.” That’s not to say that you will escape negative emotions, he believes. He says, “You feel what you feel. That’s O.K. as long as we 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.”
Even if he encounters a rude travel agent, Khenpo Pema retains his good humor: “If I am mindful, no problem if people are rude. With mindfulness you let it go. With meditation, that independence is there.”