The interview: Keah from South Africa to study the Basic Program

Keah, you come from South Africa. Your Country underwent a difficult change: first banned from the international community because of the apartheid and then, thanks to such outstanding persons as Nelson Mandela and Willem de Klerk, striving for a peaceful transition towards a multiethnic society. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu is an unprecedented approach for overcoming the wounds of a troubled past. Can we learn from these persons and from what they did? How did you and your family experience these years?

When apartheid came to an end I was 13, that was early in my life and so I was not very affected by it. When I entered into high school was when the first mixed post-apartheid schools started. I remember my sister and I always felt a sense of equality and non discrimination with different races. I think we where fortunate to have been born in a time when the apartheid was finishing so we where not as influenced by the social conditioning as our parents and their parents where.
I think Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu are truly great leaders, they fall into the same category for me as the likes of HHDL, Thich Nhat Hanh, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa – all of these great beings dedicated their lives to benefiting others, striving for civil rights and human rights, in a spirit of peace, understanding, forgiveness and reconciliation, which as we can see by their influence is fundamental to bring about meaningful change.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission embodied these qualities and aspirations, and I think on many levels was very effective, because great change like this can not happen without understanding and forgiveness, of course it could by no means solve all the problems of the past, but I think it was a very important part of the spirit with which this change happened in South Africa, and it being able to happen in the effective way that it did.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama came to South Africa twice, in 1996 and in 2004, invited by President Mandela. Did His visits arouse an interest for Buddhism among those not already traditionally practicing it?

At that time I was still quite young and not yet aware of Buddhism. From my experience now I can say that South Africa is a melting pot of cultures and religions, with Christianity and Islam being at the forefront. The Buddhist community is fairly small in relation to the other major religions, but it is growing steadily. We do have small Dharma centers established in all the main cities, as well as some beautiful retreat centers, so I think we are building the foundation for some bigger centers to come in the near future, as well as some experienced resident teachers. FPMT has yet to form a center in South Africa so I hope to be able to work to assist the FPMT to bring this to life in the future.

When and how did you personally encounter Buddhism?

My first book on Buddhism was given to me by my mother, I remember looking at it, but not really getting past the first page. I became interested in spirituality and our human potential in my early twenties, and started reading a lot and following different practices – but the real turning point came a few years later whilst I was on the Pilgrimage route to Santiago, I had this realization that as I was able to transform myself I was able to help others, I realized at that moment that I wanted to move from my current career into something more meaningful, something benefiting others. When I arrived home I happened to open this Buddhist book again, and this time it was as if someone had turned a light on, I felt that everything I had so far found to be true was right here in this book, in particular this fundamental message of Buddhism of self transformation, and cherishing and benefiting others. I decided at that point to book my first month retreat to learn more about Buddhism and meditation, and my faith and love for Buddhism has grown from strength to strength ever since.

What made you choose the Basic Program and the ILTK?

I was actually doing research for long term retreat cabins, when I stumbled upon the FPMT website and found that they have these wonderful long term study programs available, I was not even aware of the possibility for westerners to study Buddhism, like the Tibetan monastics do. I was immediately interested and set about planning and taking care of things at home and with work to be able to create the opportunity to come and study.

You already spent some months here. Is your intention to continue and to complete the 2-years cycle of the Basic Program, and do you have any ideas in mind for the future?

Yes, definitely! I wish to complete it, to do the retreat, and then take the exam. I would like to become a registered teacher, and ultimately hope to be able to offer teachings and meditations in both the Buddha-Dharma as well as secular contexts. I successfully completed the Cultivating Emotional Balance Teachers Training 3 years ago – the project that arose from The Mind and Life Institute dialogues between psychologists and neuro-scientists studying emotions and the Dalai Lama – and I think that the Basic Program offers the perfect foundation for this, so I look forward to be able to facilitate these courses in the near future too.

Information about Basic Program:
Interview by Paolo Sala

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