(In)Formation: Putting Flesh on the Bones of Public Conversations About Religion

It was all I could do to keep from scratching my chigger bites incessantly as I sat in a white plastic lawn chair with about ten other people underneath a tent on a stiflingly hot, muggy day in the summer of 2004. It was the last day of a wonderful, if physically uncomfortable, weekend retreat at Pema Gochen Ling, a rural retreat center outside of Nashville, Tennessee. Seated in front of us were two men in their seventies, dressed in burgundy robes and chanting in Tibetan as we struggled to repeat after them. These were Khenchen Palden Sherab and Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal, brothers from Eastern Tibet who were now becoming my teachers, my lamas, my gurus.

I was becoming something, too. They snipped a small piece of hair from the crown of our heads as a symbolic offering to the Three Jewels—Buddha, his teachings (dharma), and the Buddhist community (sangha)—then snapped their fingers. We had taken refuge. We were now Buddhists.

With my new identity came a new name, Pema Chagme, written in beautiful Tibetan calligraphy by Khenpo Tsewang and given to me after the ceremony. Pema means “lotus,” and is common to all of my teachers’ students. Chagme, which is unique to me, is formed from two Tibetan words: med, meaning “without” or “does not exist,” and chags, meaning “desire” or “attachment.” All together, it translates to “Lotus of Detachment,” proving, if nothing else, that my teachers had a wonderful sense of irony.

These is some double entendre in my name too, however; chags can also mean “formed” or “to be formed.” The rGyud bzhi, or Four Medical Tantras, on which Tibetan medicine is based, even uses chags to describe human nascency:

The formation [chags] of the navel is the beginning of the fetus’ body.

. . . [T]he soul-meridian forms [chags] in dependence upon the navel.

If my aspiration is to become the Lotus of Detachment, then my reality is more like the “Lotus Without Form,” the “Embryonic Lotus,” the “Lotus Not Yet Born.” Like the fetus in the rGyud bzhi, I am still being fleshed out; I am still in a state of formation.


In “Local Knowledge in the Age of Information,” Wendell Berry writes, “To inform is to form from within. Information, in this sense, refers to teaching and learning, to the formation of a person’s mind or character.” He goes on to lament how thoroughly we’ve come to misuse information, using it to refer not to a process of intellectual or spiritual formation, but rather to mere facts at our disposal. “At whatever cost this information is made available to its potential users,” Berry continues, “it arrives unformed and unexperienced. There is nothing deader or of more questionable value than facts in isolation.”

There’s been a lot of talk about the facts of religion lately. This past September, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released their much-publicized U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey, which, among other things, suggested that most Americans are ignorant of the basic facts about world religions. This survey was foreshadowed by Stephen Prothero’s 2007 book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t, in which he calls America “a nation of religious illiterates” and argues for mandatory, non-sectarian religious education in public schools.

One can hardly argue with Prothero’s prescription, but one also has to wonder if both he and the Pew Forum aren’t missing the mark. Prothero decries the fact that “[m]any Protestants can’t name the four Gospels, many Catholics can’t name the seven sacraments, and many Jews can’t name the first five books of the Bible.” The Pew Forum echoes him, saying, “. . . large numbers of Americans are uninformed about the tenets, practices, history and leading figures of major faith traditions—including their own.” At first glance, the idea that so many of us could be so ignorant about something at the heart of many of the most important issues of our time is appalling, but something’s off.

No one could accuse me of religious illiteracy. I hold a terminal degree in religious studies from Harvard University, but I regularly forget one or two points of the Noble Eightfold Path. I certainly cannot name the Five Pillars of Islam—I though there were seven before looking it up just now—or, despite my Roman Catholic upbringing, even the Seven Deadly Sins. What makes me literate about religion isn’t knowing a lot of facts about it, but knowing what to do with those facts once I have them. What neither Prothero nor the Pew Forum stops to think is that religion might be more than just religious trivia, that there might be more to literacy than merely being able to sound out the words on the page.


As young scholars, practitioners, and activists, our intellectual lives, our spiritual lives, or our careers might be in states of formation, but the public conversations about religion and ethics in the United States are also in a state of formation. They are a bit like the rGyud bzhi‘s embryo—disembodied, without ground or context. My hope is that State of Formation can help put some meat on the bones of that conversation by giving voice not just to the what of religion, but also to the who, when, where, why, and how. Religion could not be more important to our public life; we cannot afford to be un-in-formed.

(photo of a monk reading a portion of the Tibetan rGyud bzhi courtesy of Maciej Wojtkowiak)

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2 thoughts on “(In)Formation: Putting Flesh on the Bones of Public Conversations About Religion

  1. Great reflections, Pema Chagme! I agree with your critiques of the Pew survey and religious trivia. On the other hand, though, if one cannot sound the words on the page, one is not likely to grasp the deeper meaning. So, while I share your critique, I still find the results of the survey disheartening.
    The reflections on your Tibetan name are wonderful and could even open the door to some interesting Hindu comparisons with Hiranyagarbha, often translated “the golden embryo.”
    Indeed, I fully agree that religion is not about facts – “disembodied, without ground or context.” Rather, religion is about meaning and purpose (अर्थः), and meaning only arises in context, in relation – in sangha.

    Not sure if you recall, but we met once, briefly, at Harvard – I was stealing a bit of lunch from an orientation meal 🙂

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