In 1958, 4-year-old Lobsang Rapgay and his family fled their home in Lhasa, Tibet. Joining a caravan of some three dozen fellow refugees, they headed into the Himalayas on a treacherous, seven-day trek to India while, behind them, Mao Tse Tung’s armies completed China’s bloody conquest of Tibet.
Once safely in India, the family settled in Dharamsala, which in 1960 would also become home to another refugee — His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader and former head of state, with whom Rapgay would later cross paths.
Today, Rapgay is a research psychologist in UCLA’s Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences. And he is organizing a May 2 symposium in which UCLA neuroscientists and the Dalai Lama will discuss how Tibetan Buddhism and western neuroscience can work together to help people gain greater mental flexibility, creativity and compassion. The UCLA International Institute and the UCLA Center for Buddhist Studies are hosting the Dalai Lama's campus visit.
In many ways, the symposium will bring Rapgay full circle to the journey that began a half-century ago. His new life in Dharamsala began with his father enrolling him in a Catholic boarding school where he learned English and received a modern education. Upon graduation, he went to the University of Delhi, where he earned a Master’s Degree in history — but not before he returned to Dharamsala to join a monastery and become a Tibetan monk for 18 years.
“I was always very interested in learning Buddhist teachings, but from an academic point of view,” Rapgay recalled. “Tibetan monasteries are very academic, very much like the Jesuits. You study the texts, sit for exams and advance up the ladder in terms of grades and things like that.”
Much different from the western, meditation-centered concept of Buddhist training, he explained, “The idea is you study the various texts sequentially, and when you reach a certain level where you conceptually know their content, only then are you qualified to really meditate on the texts fulltime.”
Finishing his academic training in four years (while also completing his M.S. in history by correspondence course), Rapgay left the monastery — while remaining a monk. He found work translating Tibetan texts into English for many of the hundreds of foreigners streaming into Dharamsala for Buddhist training. In 1978, this skill serendipitously led him to the very side of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, whom Rapgay served as deputy secretary and English language interpreter at the Dalai Lama's Tibetan Medicine and Astrology Institute.
It was at that Buddhist educational institute that Rapgay began learning ancient Buddhist meditative practices — a systematic means of cultivating mindfulness in one’s body, feelings and thoughts.
Rapgay also studied Tibetan medicine, wrote “Tibetan Medicine: A Holistic Approach to Better Health” and three other books on the subject, before beginning a new quest: studying in the United States. In 1990, he enrolled at the Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara for psychoanalytic training, earning a Ph.D. And in 1996, he joined UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute — now the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior — where he founded and directed the Behavioral Medicine Clinic.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama will be coming to campus in May to talk with UCLA neuroscientists about how Tibetan Buddhism as well as neuroscience can help people achieve compassion and creativity.
Throughout, Rapgay remained a monk. While he dressed western-style, forgoing the traditional saffron-hued robes, he continued to shave his head, remain celibate and follow the disciplined regimen he had known at his monastery, where his days — filled with work, study and prayer — began with 5 a.m. prayers and ended with bed at 11:30 p.m.
Yet, worlds removed from the monastery, L.A. exerted its own influence. “It became more difficult,” he recalled. “Once I realized I was pursuing a professional career and living by myself in Los Angeles in a modern situation, I felt it I could not do justice to being a monk. I kept my vows until 2000.”
Still, Buddhism remains very much a part of Rapgay’s life, including twice-daily meditation and visits to local temples on Buddhist holy days. And in March, he and his wife — an accomplished practioner of Tibetan medicine — will travel to India on a pilgrimage to the sites where the Buddha was born, became enlightened, died and was cremated.
Buddhism is reflected in his profession as well. Three years ago he shifted from working with patients as a clinical psychologist to doing full-time research. Specifically, he applies his deep knowledge of mindfulness practices to better understand the brain’s role in attention — exploring how humans process and respond to stimuli, and fine-tuning an understanding of the many varieties of attention involved in human functioning. His research, Rapgay hopes, may someday lead to new treatments for post-traumatic stress syndrome and other anxiety disorders, among other implications. He also has written books about meditation, most recently "Real Meditation in Minutes a Day: Enhancing Your Performance, Relationships, Spirituality, and Health" (2008, Wisdom Publications), co-authored with the Dalai Lama and Dr. Joseph Arpaia.
Rapgay will discuss his research with the Dalai Lama at the May 2 afternoon symposium at Royce Hall, along with colleagues Professor Robert Bilder, who will discuss the cognitive aspects of creativity, and Professor Susan Bookheimer, who will talk about the role of mirror neurons in cultivating compassion. Professor Robert Buswell, director of the Center for Buddhist Studies, will moderate the discussion, which will be open to the public.
Earlier that same day, the Dalai Lama will also speak at Royce on the subject, "What is True Wisdom?" Tickets and additional information on both events are available at this website.