The thing that's often asked of me [by other Western Buddhists] is 'who's your teacher?, ' and when I say I don't have a teacher it's sort of like 'ohhh.' Sort of like, 'you're not part of the flock.' Or … people talking about their teachers and name-dropping [their meetings with famous Tibetan masters] a lot, and you know, I don't really have that … You know I feel that I'm not really part of Buddhism or the Buddhist community in some ways, because I don't have a lama. I don't even know how to say, you know, ngöndro [sngon'gro: the 'preliminary' practices of Vajrayana] because I don't do those [practices]. People will talk about all their prostrations and other things that they are doing and I don't have any of that, and I wonder am I really a Buddhist? I've taken refuge, but I'm not doing what everyone else is doing. And I go to teachings and I study. I do my own kind of practice which I guess is different from theirs.
(Kelly, 35-year-old American traveler)
In this chapter, I examine some of the implications of these remarks. Despite her seeming nonchalance, Kelly's quotation here (as well as later comments she made to me over the period of a year) reflects concern about her relationship to Tibetan Buddhism, especially when she compared herself to other Western Buddhists. She had just been traveling in northern India for six months when I met her in Kathmandu; having quit her job teaching English in Japan the previous year, she had come to South Asia to find out more about Buddhism. But could she call herself a Buddhist, and yet not have a principal religious teacher or guru? Kelly imagined herself outside of a community of Westerners who prided themselves on the teachings they had received, and the lamas they had met, even as she later described her involvement in Tibetan Buddhism to me in just those terms.
Sara, another American, though living and working in Kathmandu (introduced in the previous chapter), commented on her sense of certitude: she wanted to 'take refuge [in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha], ' and 'become a Buddhist' even though she knew that her 'experienced' Western Buddhist friend would think it odd. After all, Sara told me that she had not read any books, practiced (meditation or mantra recitation or visualizations) or been to a Tibetan lama to hear him expound the Dharma. Surely, Sara seemed to be saying, those