While the occasional tourist comes for a day trip to snap photos, the place has a considerably different feel to, say, Dharamshala in northern India. Being the home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Dharamshala draws an international crowd comprising everyone from dreadlocked hippie backpackers to school group volunteers and families with young children.
Mundgod, on the other hand, feels truly authentic. In fact, the area is sometimes dubbed ‘Little Tibet’. This authenticity sometimes proves challenging for the foreign traveler, especially in the monastery area. While attempting to buy a bottle of water or asking how much something cost, for example, this correspondent often berated herself for not learning some Tibetan beyond the common greeting ‘Tashi Delek’.
Imagine my surprise, then, when a Westerner dressed in shorts and a polo shirt walked out of the room next to mine. “You’re American!” he exclaimed. “It’s been a long time since I heard an American accent.”
Eric Traub leaves his home in California to travel to India several times a year, spending five-week sessions studying Tibetan Buddhist philosophy at Drepung Loseling.
He agreed to speak with me about his thoughts on Buddhism, what Buddhist teachings can offer the West, and the Tibetan political situation.
Traub commented that once, while looking at an online world map, he calculated that his two homes are on almost exactly opposite sides of the world. This is fitting, he explained, because the life he lives in California couldn’t be more different than the life he lives in Mundgod. Traub, an entrepreneur, lives with his wife and three daughters in Marin County, a wealthy suburb of San Francisco. He has founded and run successful companies in healthcare, technology, and education.
A committed Tibetan Buddhist, he gladly puts aside his suits, white-tablecloth dinners with influential writers and businesspeople, high-speed internet and beautiful home to live in a small, simple room in Mundgod, rigorously studying Buddhist philosophy and living within the monastic community.
His teacher, Geshe Namgyal Wangchen, is a high lama who is also the teacher of the next Dalai Lama’s tutor. “I am very fortunate,” said Traub.
Traub has been engaged, as he put it, in “an aggressive pursuit of truth” since age 17. Early in his career, he worked for a large organization that promised answers to fundamental human questions. He eventually found, however, that the organization was “more corrupting than beneficial to human values”.
“I am well-read and well-studied in many fields,” he told me. “While it has some value, I abhor most self-help. Most of it is counterproductive. The gains people make are often short-term and then direct them off-track towards still more unhappiness in the end.”
“I felt like there was something that was not being said - the giant missing piece right in the middle of it all.”
He found that something in Tibetan Buddhism. He had always had an interest, but in 2003 he attended one of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s public talks in San Francisco and made a commitment to become a student of His Holiness.
Traub said the vows he took at the teaching were vows he was already living by and that, to him, the teachings of the Gelug tradition of Buddhism seemed like teachings he already believed. “It felt like something that was already there - it just had to be uncovered. Taking vows brings something implicit in each of us and makes it explicit in the form of a pledge to live it. Vows aren’t restrictions - they’re a gift of freedom.”
“I’m a bit of a spiritual elitist, I suppose. I only want the real, the true teachings,” laughed Traub. He takes issue with big sweeping programs that promise huge self-transformation in a short space of time. He sees Buddhism, rather, as a “documented science with specific formats” that leads to true and lasting transformation of human nature itself.
“The Buddha said to test the teachings like a scientist, and I do test them, one by one, as I learn. They are reliable without fail. Buddhism is about liberation from the most central affliction - the habit of ‘self’."
Traub’s wife and children are also Buddhist, and he told me his family integrate the principles of Buddhism into their everyday lives.
“Our family is committed to each other. We need each other,” he said, explaining that, in Western psychology, people are often taught that they should not need anyone else - that needing others can be seen as a weakness in American society, where individualism is excessively valued.
Traub believes that people are fundamentally dependent on one another, and his family bases their lives on this interdependence and on totally open communication.
“We have also redefined our approach to resources, looking at what we need in a month or a year, and what we can give. Instead of money being the key to sustainability, we leverage resourcefulness and community interdependence.”
Traub’s youngest daughter attends a school run by a former Buddhist nun. When deciding whether to send her there, he and his wife Clare felt the tuition fees were much too high. “We decided to do a value-for-value exchange,” he said. Clare, a Waldorf-trained teacher, offered to help out at the school in exchange for part of their daughter’s tuition. The trade-off was favorable to both parties, as Clare’s work there greatly enhanced the quality of education for all the children.
Traub believes that a transformation is occurring in America - a sweeping shift that will permanently change people’s relationship to value and resources.
The current structure of American society, he said, is based on institutions and corporations, not human beings. “The corporate system is designed so that no one person is held accountable for their actions. People are not willing to live this way anymore.”
The rule of institutions and corporations has rendered most people powerless, he continued, which is something people will not stand for.
“Humans can stand a lot. But if you take away their personal efficacy, their power to influence the course of their own lives, they will find a way to fight back.”
Traub cited the recent revolutions in Libya and Egypt, and the Occupy movement (an international protest movement, primarily directed against economic and social inequality), as unarguable evidence of people’s unwillingness to remain powerless.
Speaking of recent cases in which law school graduates have sued their law schools due to their inability to find jobs after graduation, he said Americans have already started voicing their discontent. While he finds this particular example ridiculous, he believes it is the beginning of a greater trend. “There will be riots in America by next summer,” he said.
Traub is in constant dialogue with other thinkers in many fields, and believes that a fundamental shift is occurring in the way people live. People are talking about developing local currencies, he said, engaging in cooperative buying, and sharing one car between several families.
When asked whether he thinks America is moving towards a communal society, he replied, “No, but I do think we are moving towards a society of closer-knit communities.”
People may also start living in communities with people who share the same values, he continued. For example, that could be Christian neighborhoods, Buddhist neighborhoods, New-Age neighborhoods, neighborhoods full of people who enjoy watching football together. Eco-sustainable neighborhoods, he thinks, will become increasingly widespread. “Interdependence isn’t just a Buddhist concept or New Age philosophy - it’s becoming an economic necessity.”
During this time of transition and extraordinary inter-connectedness, Traub feels Buddhist teachings will benefit others in the West. He plans to start an enterprise that familiarizes Americans with the teachings, lifted out of the Buddhist framework and expressed in a secular context which is applicable to their lives.
Traub does not feel that Americans need to actually convert to Buddhism to access teachings that can help transform their lives. “Even His Holiness, who speaks worldwide on Buddhist principles like compassion and peace, does not advocate for people with different belief systems to become Buddhist. I want to distill out what can be of benefit to people’s everyday concerns and living situations.”
Traub wants to focus on practical teachings that relate to people’s inner lives and outer needs. He feels that, as an American who understands the way Westerners think, he can help people comprehend often-misunderstood Buddhist concepts.
“I want to transmit the meaning of the teachings through people’s cultural ear,” he said, adding that Buddhism teaches us to “renounce attachments,” for example, but that people often misinterpret this concept. Traub believes people assume this means they cannot have what they want, but that this is a wrong understanding. People can have whatever they want, he explained, but they should not believe that attaining these wants will make them complete - it is attachment to their desires that causes pain.
In Traub’s view, the fundamental teachings of Buddhism - choosing happiness, abandoning mental and emotional obscurations, and freeing oneself from affliction - can greatly benefit those who feel lost in the midst of economic and societal transformation.
Traub has immense respect for and devotion to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He has had the opportunity to meet the spiritual leader four times. “There is no other human being like him in memorable history. No one is more universally trusted, loved, and respected. No one has met with more world leaders.”
As to the Tibetan political situation, he has hope that things will change. While he doesn’t see Tibet being a completely independent entity immediately, he said, “There is no doubt that Tibet will be open again. The Tibetans will be able to go home.”
“There is something in us, a moral good,” he said. He believes that it will take an event that really lights the fuse internationally - something even more atrocious than what is already occurring.
“Boycotting China is not possible, but it will take some sort of international pressure, some form of economic demand,” he said. He thinks more people will have to pressure their political leaders, and a president - most likely an American president - will have to take stand, to make a stronger statement.
“There is no chance that Tibet will not be open again to Tibetans, and that His Holiness will be allowed to return. The only question is, when, how long? How many more injustices?”Traub believes the Tibetan people could not have a better spiritual leader to guide them through their time of exile. “His Holiness is living proof of everything the Buddha taught. He is now the Living Buddha and, personally, I believe, the 14th Dalai Lama is the greatest of all the Dalai Lamas.”