Rina Sircar earned a doctoral degree (1974) in Indian Philosophy from Gujarat University in India and a second Ph.D. in South Asian Studies from the California Institute of Asian Studies (1976). She also received degrees in Law, Oriental Philosophy, and the Abhidhamma and Sutta Pitakas from Rangoon University in Burma.
In addition to more than 30 years of teaching experience and several publications, Rina is co-founder and resident meditation teacher of Taungpulu Kaba-Aye Monastery and its San Francisco center, conducts retreats on mindfulness, insight, healing and death and dying in the Theravada forest tradition. She was selected for the Haridas Chaudhuri Professor of South Asian and Comparative Philosophy (1988-92). In 1981, she received the honorary title of Vidasanachariya from Calcutta and, in 1982, Dhammaratna from Bangladesh. She holds the World Peace Buddhist chair in the philosophy and religion department.
From the Beginning
Dr. Rina Sircar, core faculty in the Asian and Comparative Studies program at CIIS, has been with CIIS for many years, having earned a Doctoral degree in Indian Philosophy from Gujarat University, India, in 1974 and a second Ph.D. in South Asian Studies from the California Institute of Asian Studies in 1976.
In addition to more than 30 years of teaching experience and authoring several publications, Dr. Sircar is co-founder and resident meditation teacher of the Taungpulu Kaba-Aye monastery and its San Francisco center, where she conducts retreats on mindfulness, insight, healing, and death and dying in the Theravada forest tradition. Dr. Sircar currently holds the World Peace Buddhist Chair in the Philosophy and Religion department.
Conducted by Jim Ryan, co-director of Asian and Comparative Studies, and Sharon Roe, graduate student in Asian and Comparative Studies, this interview took place on March 2, 2003.
Jim Ryan: You came to CIIS in 1974 to study with Dr. Chaudhuri. What was the Philosophy and Religion program like at that time?
Rina Sircar: Dr. Chaudhuri taught philosophy and religion, and Zen Buddhism was also taught. There was no teacher for Theravada Buddhism. So from the very first month, I taught and studied.
On my last day of classes, I thought that Dr. Chaudhuri looked a little tired and suggested that he go out for a walk. He said, "Yes, Rina, but first let me give you your dissertation topic." I reminded him that he had given me the topic a long time ago and that, furthermore, I had completed the writing. He replied, "Oh, really? Good. Congratulations." And then he changed my topic, which had been on the epistemological and logical aspects of Buddhism. But he said, "Do something that will help you. Do the psycho-ethical aspects. That will help you."
JR: What sort of courses did you teach when you started?
RS: My first class was the essence of Theravada Buddhism, and I also taught Pali. Gradually they heard about my healing work and asked me to teach healing at the Institute. In the beginning I was a little confused about who would take the class because Buddhist healing is very different from yoga and the types of healing that they were teaching.
The first healing they found out about was my work with one of my students. I was reluctant to practice the healing I learned from my teachers and the healers they sent me to in the villages of Burma. I come from a family of medical doctors and my brother had warned me, "Don't do any of your rubbish there! Don't make a fool out of yourself." So the first thing I told my student was, "You can't tell anybody. You have to keep it really secret and very, very confidential, because if Dr. Chaudhuri or Bina Chaudhuri find out then it will get back to my brother and he will be very, very angry."
She agreed, so I worked with her over a period of several days. When she went back to the hospital they found nothing. They didn't do any surgery and only told her to come back in six months. After that got around, I worked all over the hospital. Some of the doctors wanted to know what I was doing during my healing sessions because people were feeling very good about it. I told them, "There is nothing to say about it. You have to do it. If you talk, that is not a healing." Some of them started taking classes here at school and later joined the monastery and are still members.
JR: Did Dr. Chaudhuri also teach Western philosophy?
RS: He taught East-West Comparative Philosophy, not totally Western. He really was a giant in his field. Dr. Chaudhuri was not an ordinary person, because in his presence, things became so different. During my first interview with him, I could not take one minute with him. His eyes were like two electric light bulbs.
JR: Yes, you can see that in some of the pictures of him. Well, you've now been here at CIIS since 1974. What can you say about what is special about the Institute?
RS: You know this school is very unique. That's why I came here. I was admitted to Stanford and other places, but when I visited this school I didn't want to go anywhere else. Our school really has heart.