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FPMT’S CHILD-FOCUSED ACTIVITIES
The early students of Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche not only helped establish the international FPMT mandala, but many also started families and raised their children with Dharma. Three now-adult children of long-time students shared with Mandala their thoughts about taking a turn and getting involved with FPMT centers. Arya and Jhana Cayton are children of Karuna and Pam Cayton, who lived at and helped manage Kopan Monastery between the years 1978-1988. They also founded, in 1982, the Himalayan Yogic Institute, now the Himalayan Buddhist Meditation Centre (HBMC) in Kathmandu, Nepal. Felicity Noël Keeley is the daughter of Jacie Keeley, who served as Lama Yeshe’s secretary and director of the Central Office (which became FPMT International Office). While it wasn’t always easy for them while growing up, these second-generation FPMT students all say they have come to see how being part of the FPMT community has shaped them for the better.
Repaying the Kindness
By Arya Cayton, former spiritual program coordinator at Himalayan Buddhist Meditation Centre
When I was a kid, I used to get embarrassed by all of the Buddhist things in our house, like the thangkas that filled our living room walls instead of landscape and still life paintings, or the water bowls that friends assumed were for fish. I always had faith in the Dharma, but I didn’t really begin to explore it, from my own side, until the end of high school. I never realized how fortunate I was to have grown up with Buddhism until I went back to Nepal in 2009 for the first time since I was a baby and did the November course at Kopan Monastery.
While at Kopan, I began thinking a lot about how much Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche have influenced my life. It was because of both of them that my parents went to Kopan, met each other, got married, and had children. It was because of the influence of the Lamas that my brothers and I were brought up with some understanding of the Dharma, most importantly, the causes of happiness and suffering and the value in benefiting others. I felt so incredibly fortunate for this and as I began to get a little glimpse into the inconceivable extent of the effects these Lamas have had, not just on my life, but on the lives of so many people, on the world, I was filled with this desire to begin to repay the kindness of Lama Zopa Rinpoche in particular, and to help support the incredible work of FPMT. After returning to the United States from Nepal, I wasn’t embarrassed by the rituals and thangkas in my house, but rather amazed at how I landed myself in a family like this.
I ended up returning to Nepal at the end of 2011 to pursue an idea I had to start a business incorporating the beautiful hand-woven and natural textiles I had seen during my trip there in 2009. A few months later, Rinpoche came to Nepal and after learning that I was staying for some time, requested that I become spiritual program coordinator at Himalayan Buddhist Meditation Centre (HBMC). Although I didn’t think I would be best suited for the role, I was very happy to have an opportunity to try to follow a request from Rinpoche. I worked at HBMC for a year and a half and did my best to help revamp the center by organizing events and creating an environment to where people would want to come. I was amazed at the amount of interest from people from all over the world and I really loved getting to know so many different people and trying to help to create a comfortable bridge between the world of backpacking and adventure and the world of Dharma. It was quite challenging to really execute my ideas and hopes for the center, and I would have liked to have accomplished more, but I never doubted that I wasn’t doing the right thing by trying.
I feel very fortunate to have grown up with such incredible parents; I realize more every day how rare this is. I am really happy with the way they raised me, they never forced me to believe in anything because they do, but rather encouraged me to think for myself and debate with them and try to put some teachings into practice and see if they help. And they always did, so I guess that’s how my interest and conviction in Dharma grew. My life would certainly not be the same without these teachings and practice, and I have the Lamas and my parents to thank for that. Although I feel I haven’t done much yet, I really hope that I can continue to help to support FPMT and Rinpoche’s projects in the future in whatever way is most beneficial and make my life at least a little bit useful. I think it’s really inspiring and admirable what everyone is doing for FPMT; there really are a lot of reasons to rejoice.
Exploring Buddhism on My Own
By Jhana Cayton, former study group coordinator of Lama Yeshe House
Growing up in the FPMT was a privilege that I hadn’t viewed as much of a privilege at all until I attended the November course at Kopan in 2009 [with my sister Arya]. Although we grew up with universal values based in the Dharma, I hadn’t had an opportunity to immerse myself in the study of lam-rim. We all know how distracting samsara is and I often say that my month at Kopan was the greatest vacation I’ve ever had. Having the opportunity to delve into the lam-rim in such a conducive environment was an invaluable experience. This immersion allowed me to step back from the constant flow of daily life and reflect on 24 years of experiences, the interdependent nature of these experiences and the undeniably fortunate life I was born into.
To be perfectly honest, growing up in an overtly Buddhist family was something I had always attempted to mask, explaining to friends that my parents were simply fascinated by Asian art and that our food offerings were “leftovers” from last night’s dinner. I think I even wanted to wear a crucifix necklace at one point just to fit in. Finally, after exploring Buddhism on my own, I discovered the timeless and incomparable value and application of the Dharma, and I gained the confidence and faith to embrace my position as an “inner being.” Having the opportunity to learn and reflect inspired me to make significant choices in an effort to regenerate the karmic seeds I had exhausted over the past 25 years.
After returning to the United States in 2010, I assisted in the revitalization and coordination of the Lama Yeshe House in Colorado. Among other activities, we started holding weekend retreats and weekday meditations and helped host the touring monks from the Gaden Shartse Cultural Foundation. We began building a solid foundation and community. After two years in the U.S., I felt a strong urge to return to Nepal and India. After leaving Lama Yeshe House in good hands, I decided to join my sister, Arya, in Kathmandu to start a social enterprise in Nepal. I’m still living in Kathmandu, and we recently launched EST WST Collective to support rural populations and women who are victims of sexual and domestic violence in Nepal and India. In Arya’s absence, I’ve also been coordinating activities and teaching meditation at Himalayan Buddhist Meditation Centre in Kathmandu.
I’m a huge advocate of the November course and have recommended it to a number of friends. I think it’s important for the FPMT to continue evolving and creating opportunities for younger generations to gain access to the Dharma. It’s amazing to witness the ever-growing popularity of Tibetan Buddhism, which also makes it important to preserve its essence. Most of all, I feel incredibly fortunate to have had an opportunity to serve Lama Zopa Rinpoche and to receive wisdom and guidance from such an incredibly wise and realized being.
Friends All Over the World
By Felicity Noël Keeley, director of Milarepa Center
On April 11, 2014, I officially became the new director of Milarepa Center in Vermont. It is a joyful feeling knowing that I came out as a good choice for Milarepa Center in Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s mo [divination]. So, with great dedication and confidence, I moved from south Florida to a small town in Vermont to be a part of something really special: working for Rinpoche as an official part of the FPMT.
I am blessed to have been born into the FPMT family. I have friends all over the world, many whom I have not even met – yet – but, when we do meet, we will instantly feel close because of our connection to Lama Yeshe and Rinpoche.
Even though I was raised Buddhist by my mom, Jacie Keeley, who was once secretary to Lama Yeshe, I still had to make the choice for myself. It became clear to me while I was attending college in London that this was my path. I had the chance to study at Jamyang and to visit Maitreya Instituut in Amsterdam and Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa in Italy. Then, when I returned to America, my mom sponsored me to do the New Year’s Eve Vajrasattva retreat at Vajrapani Institute. During all of this, I felt the connection to the Dharma and to my FPMT friends and family all on my own. It was my very own personal experience. It was amazing. I knew for certain that my life’s goal was to benefit the greatest amount of beings possible. For me, the way to do this was by serving Lama Zopa Rinpoche and the FPMT.
I am so lucky to have support, encouragement and guidance from those who recognize the importance of being in the presence of the great lamas. The FPMT Sangha and friends of my parents are now not just my role models but they are also my friends.
During my recent trip to Nepal and India, I participated in the 2013 November course at Kopan Monastery. There, I made connections with new young Dharma students and even some other second-generation FPMT students, children of my mother’s Dharma friends. It was incredible to think of our Lamas’ early students; to reflect on their hard work and dedication in bringing Buddhism to the West and to know that, because of them, I could be at “five-star Kopan,” as Rinpoche would say.
While circumambulating Boudhanath Stupa at the end of the retreat with my new group of Dharma friends, friends who will last beyond this lifetime, I knew that we are it, we are the new FPMT generation. It is up to us to work for Rinpoche, the FPMT and all of the great lamas and we must practice and preserve Buddhism in our own minds for the sake of all sentient beings.
In short, the FPMT has had a huge impact on me. It is my family and my home. It provides me with a superior way to fulfill my deeply ingrained wish to be of ultimate benefit to others. I am grateful.
You can see the work of Arya and Jhana’s social enterprise at the EST WST Collective.
The annual long life puja for FPMT spiritual director Lama Zopa Rinpoche offered on behalf of FPMT centers, projects, services and students took place at Kopan Monastery in Nepal on December 9. Hundreds of people attended the puja, which took place at the end of the month-long meditation course at Kopan. Rinpoche was offered a total count of the prayers and practices done for Rinpoche’s health and long life.
More information, photos and updates about FPMT spiritual director Lama Zopa Rinpoche can be found on Rinpoche’s homepage. If you’d like to receive news of Lama Zopa Rinpoche via email, sign up to Lama Zopa Rinpoche News.
Each year FPMT offers a long life puja to Lama Zopa Rinpoche, you can learn more about long life pujas and how to support future pujas by visiting the Long Life Puja Fund page.
“Lama Zopa: We need to destroy our ignorance that grasps at true existence. Thru reasoning, understand the extensive kindness of living beings.”
– From Ven. Roger Kunsang’s Twitter page, posted on November 28, 2013
Ven. Roger Kunsang, Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s assistant and CEO of FPMT Inc., shares Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s recent pith sayings on Ven. Roger’s Twitter page. (You can also read them on Ven. Roger’s Facebook page.)
More information, photos and updates about FPMT spiritual director Lama Zopa Rinpoche can be found on Rinpoche’s homepage. If you’d like to receive news of Lama Zopa Rinpoche via email, sign up to Lama Zopa Rinpoche News.
Rinpoche arrived at Kopan Monastery in Nepal on November 22. Rinpoche visited the Kopan nunnery, Kachoe Ghakyil Ling, first. The nuns greeted Rinpoche, who went into the gompa at the nunnery to make prostrations. Then he went up Kopan hill, where he was greeted by a long line of monks and more than 200 Westerners, who are currently attending the Kopan November course.
“Without wasting a minute, [Rinpoche] walked straight into the gompa and started to give a talk to the November course people,” said Ven. Roger, Rinpoche’s assistant and CEO of FPMT.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche is the spiritual director of the Foundation for the Preservation of Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), an organization dedicated to preserving Mahayana Buddhism through offering the Buddha’s authentic teachings and to facilitating reflection, meditation, practice and the opportunity to actualize and directly experience the Buddha’s teachings. Sign up to receive news and updates.
ROAD TO KOPAN
For many long-time students of Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal, is where they first met the teachings of Buddha and where they saw their lives changed profoundly. Mandala has been collecting the stories of how early students came to Kopan Hill in our ongoing “Road to Kopan” series.
Australian nun Ven. Margaret McAndrew arrived in Kopan in 1974 and shares her story in this issue’s “Road to Kopan.”
When I think back to my first days with the Lamas and the Dharma, it is strange to look at how much has happened since. We were a group of eager, enthusiastic people, mostly quite young (although I was relatively old at 30). In those days, there were a lot of young people from many countries drifting round Asia on the cheap, mostly influenced to some degree by the hippie movement. But you didn’t say they were “hippies” – you had to call them “freaks.” When anything interesting was happening in that part of the world, the news would spread like wildfire through the travelers’ network, and one of the big items of interest was “the Kopan courses” and “the Lamas.”
In 1973 and early 1974, I was wandering around India and Nepal. I had reached a point in my life where I couldn’t see my way ahead. I was fulfilling a long-time urge to travel in exotic places, but I also hoped to learn some wisdom in the cultures I was traveling through, and had the idea that meditation might help me deal with my discontented state of mind. But I wasn’t interested in taking up a religion! Having been brought up Church of England, and failing to find the answers I was looking for as I grew up, I thought I had done with religion. However, I was very interested in finding out more about Eastern systems and collected a list of monasteries, courses, ashrams and gurus (some quite dodgy!).
First, I did a couple of Theravada courses, but although I did not really connect with the meditation technique, the small amount of Buddhist philosophy explained at the courses made me thirsty to learn more. Meanwhile, I kept meeting people who talked enthusiastically about Tibetan Buddhism, and at one of those courses, I found myself at Bodhgaya just as thousands of Tibetans and others were gathering for a Kalachakra initiation with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. After the course, I became caught up in this fascinating environment. It was here that I first heard of bodhichitta at a summary in English of His Holiness’ teaching. I also had my first glimpse of Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche when I joined Western students who were visiting them in a big tent. Lama Yeshe was very outgoing, greeting everyone and chatting and laughing, while Lama Zopa Rinpoche sat quietly reading a text. I was particularly drawn to Lama Zopa Rinpoche as he fitted my preconceived idea of a lama! I was assured by students I met that if I wanted to hear teachings on Buddhism, I would hear them at the Kopan course as Rinpoche taught at length morning, noon and night. All these events led me to decide to do the next Kopan course in April 1974.
When I arrived at Kopan Monastery, I had a great feeling of being at home and of a very special, peaceful and joyful atmosphere. In those days, the temple was like a little jewel on a rural hillside in the beautiful Kathmandu Valley. The buildings barely contained the young monks and so the meditation course was held in a large tent, while course students were packed into buildings belonging to the Nepalese locals.
On the first day, Lama Zopa Rinpoche entered and spent the first 15 minutes or so doing a mysterious ritual in Tibetan with candles and little cakes and lots of pungent incense. Then he won us with his first words, joking that we wouldn’t learn much from a primitive little boy from the Himalayan mountains.
I soon found that Rinpoche was a wonderful teacher, provided you were prepared to do the work of listening and taking it in. At that course, he spent a particularly long time talking about death, impermanence and the lower realms, and the harm done by attachment to the eight worldly concerns. Many of the students found this very discomforting. Conditions at the course were also extremely basic, and a lot of people walked out. However, I was so happy that nothing bothered me, and the teachings made total sense in the light of my life experiences. It was about three days into the course that I realized that in the lam-rim I was finding the understanding that I had been looking for to make my life meaningful, and that this was something for my whole life, not just an interesting experience. Lama Zopa Rinpoche also spent a long time each day talking about bodhichitta, inspiring us with the ideal of loving kindness.
During the first part of the course we didn’t receive teachings from Lama Yeshe, but the old students talked a lot about his wonderful qualities. During the second half of the course we were taking the Eight Mahayana Precepts and keeping silence, and things got very intense. Then one day Lama came in and gave us a talk which had us all laughing and that eased the difficulty in our minds about topics like the lower realms. Lama seemed to know exactly what was bothering us and how to make us feel good about the teachings. For example, he told us about a climber whose body was lying frozen on Mt. Everest and said that if the consciousness was still with the body, that is the cold hell. Suddenly the concepts we had been struggling with seemed to fall into place in the larger picture, and we all felt the impression of Lama’s powerful wisdom and loving kindness which radiated from him in a tangible way. It was clear that with Lama Zopa Rinpoche and Lama Yeshe we had beings who were not just teaching words, but embodied what they were teaching at a very special level.
After that course, I realized that my life couldn’t be the same again. My short-term goal came to be to remain in the subcontinent, giving up ideas of further travel except for that related to the Dharma, and to stay with the Lamas and be at Kopan as much as possible. For the next few years, I attended all the November Courses at Kopan and when visas ran out, some of us students would go to Dharamsala to study at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives or do retreat. After a couple of years, Lama Yeshe accepted my request to become a nun. I joined a growing group of Western Sangha.
Lama was very concerned that we should receive proper training. While we were at Kopan, Lama used to get us to live, study and do morning puja together. This was an incredibly valuable experience for a group of diverse and rather egotistical young people, who became shaped into members of a functional community. And it was something that we would carry with us to our future in Dharma centers and projects all over the world.
Meanwhile, various students, lay and Sangha, were returning to their home countries, often reluctantly. This led to the Lamas being invited to go on a world tour in 1976 and the subsequent springing up of FPMT centers all over the world. It was very exciting to hear of all these developments, but those of us who were able to be in India and Nepal just wanted to stay as long as possible and to be near the Lamas as much as we could. In those days, with fewer students, we had lots of personal contact with the Lamas. Lama Yeshe used to walk around and chat with the students, or arrange tea parties in the gompa, and we had public exams where Lama Zopa Rinpoche questioned one student at a time on their presentation of a lam-rim topic.
Even when the Lamas weren’t there, Kopan was a fascinating place, with the lively young monks running around supervised by a very special being, Lama Lhundrup, and by the impressive Lama Pasang, against a colorful background of the Nepalese countryside and its traditional people. The contingent of Westerners included a number of charismatic personalities, such as Anila Ann McNeil, who led my first meditation course. The only dark note was our discovery about Lama’s bad health. Again and again, Western doctors gave him only six months to live, but somehow he kept on going, staying with us for 10 years from the first time I met him.
There were pujas with the young monks with beautiful chanting and music, visits from great lamas such as Gomchen Rinpoche and Song Rinpoche, and special occasions such as pilgrimages to holy places in Kathmandu Valley. Lama felt that we should honor our Western backgrounds by respecting Christianity and celebrating Christmas each year with a Chenrezig puja and a lunch-time feast on the hillside. It was at these occasions that Lama gave the wonderful talks collected in Silent Mind, Holy Mind.
When I eventually had to go home in 1978, there were several new centers in Australia, and Lama first sent me to Tara Institute in Melbourne, my home city. There were quite a number of old students of the Lamas in Melbourne, and needless to say we missed the Lamas and Nepal’s holy atmosphere. Our aim was to establish the centers as places for the Dharma teachings to flourish and where the Lamas would come sometimes to teach and inspire us.
There was no doubt that the Lamas knew our minds and could respond to our prayers and unspoken thoughts. In the early days at Chenrezig Institute, when the Lamas were visiting, I very much wanted to have a one-to-one meeting with Lama Yeshe, but didn’t feel entitled to request one. Instead, I prayed to Lama to make it happen if that would be good. One day, in a big sunhat, he just popped up out of the long grass that grew all over the hill in those days, where he had been sitting waiting. We had quite a good talk before the inevitable group of students started to gather.
Later on, I was to spend time at many FPMT centers, and I became involved with the setting up of Chenrezig Nuns’ Community. Looking back at the early days and the development in the Dharma now in Australia and around the world, I feel profoundly grateful for the mandala envisioned by our Lamas and enacted by so many dedicated people carrying out their advice.
Ven. Margaret returned to Australia in 1978 and lived at both Tara Institute and Chenrezig Institute for several years (and worked as a cook in both places). She spent six months in the Dorje Phagmo Nunnery in France before finally settling at Chenrezig Institute in the late ‘80s. She was one of founding members of Chenrezig Nuns’ Community, which was formally established in 1990. Since then she has been resident there apart from stints as a visiting teacher in Taiwan, Adelaide, Gosford and Sydney. For the past several years, she has been the CNC gekyö (disciplinarian), a role she continues to play despite her diagnosis of bile duct cancer in December 2012.
In 1974, FPMT founders Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche were continuing to teach Kopan meditation courses at the request of their Western students. The courses, which are still offered annually, exposed students to their unique and experiential understanding of lam-rim. It also gave attendees the opportunity to see the special relationship Lama and Rinpoche had as guru and disciple.
Adele Hulse records some of the stories of the 1974 Kopan courses in Big Love, the forthcoming biography of FPMT founder Lama Yeshe. Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive will publish Big Love later this year and has been sharing excerpts from the book on their Big Love blog. The following is from a recent post:
One day when one of the course participants was speaking with Lama Yeshe in his room, Lama Zopa came in, fell to his knees, and started to pray. For the benefit of that student Lama pointed toward himself and said, “Dorje Chang,” indicating that Rinpoche was seeing him in the aspect of Dorje Chang. (“Who is Dorje Chang?” a student once asked him. “The biggest buddha, dear,” Lama replied.) Some students reported that they had seen Rinpoche making offerings to Lama Yeshe with tears running down his face. At other times he would not raise his eyes to look at Lama at all. Lama Yeshe was often heard speaking brusquely to Rinpoche; at the same time he also told students that Rinpoche was one of the most highly evolved beings on this planet. Lama Yeshe addressed Lama Zopa as “Kusho.” This term is generally translated from the Tibetan as “your honor” or “your worship,” and is how Tibetans commonly address monks and others of higher rank in society. These translations, however, in no way capture the clear warmth and affection expressed when Lama Yeshe addressed Rinpoche in that way. Lama actually told one student that compared to Rinpoche, he himself was just a water buffalo. And late at night, when the two lamas were alone together, all that students ever heard was an indescribable cascade of their laughter pouring out across the hill, like two buddhas in total bliss.
ROAD TO KOPAN
By Paula de Wijs
For many long-time students of Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal, is where they first met the teachings of Buddha and where they saw their lives changed profoundly. Mandala has been collecting the stories of how early students came to Kopan Hill in our ongoing “Road to Kopan” series.
Paula de Wijs arrived in Kopan in 1972. Since then, she has been actively involved with FPMT and supporting the spread of Buddhism in the West as well as working with organizations providing aide to Tibetan refugees.
When I left San Francisco in 1970, I was 22 years old. I had lived in Haight Ashbury, in a cabin at Muir Beach and in an old Victorian house for five intense years, full of music, dancing and all kinds of experiences and friendships. I had no qualms about saying that I was a San Francisco hippie, but even then, I wondered how much of what I thought and did was a result of my own thinking or of the strong culture around me. So when a friend invited me to visit him in Afghanistan, I stored or sold everything I owned and, armed with two hundred dollars, a Eurail pass and some addresses, left for Europe where I hoped to get a ride to Kabul.
I was lucky to be able to earn a little more money by being an extra in the Steve McQueen movie Le Mans and working in a hotel in Switzerland, but at the end of the summer, I realized that I needed to find a home or a lift to Afghanistan before winter set in. Amsterdam seemed to be a good choice since an American acquaintance who had traveled with my friend in Afghanistan was there and planning to buy a car and drive there once again. He brought me to visit Matti de Wijs, who had also been with them in Kabul, and I had a very strange experience when we rang Matti’s doorbell – a strong premonition that this person was going to be extremely significant in my life. Of course, I thought that this meant that I would fall head-over-heels in love with him. I was disappointed at the time, when that did not immediately happen. Little did I know that he would introduce me to my future teachers and later, that I would marry him and we would spend the next 42 years together! (more…)
- Tagged: kopan course, maitreya instituut, mandala, michael lobsang yeshe, paula de wijs, road to kopan
DHARMA AND THE MODERN WORLD
In 1972, Dr. Nicholas Ribush arrived at Kopan Monastery in Nepal. After attending the Third Kopan Course, he offered to help Lama Zopa Rinpoche revise Rinpoche’s The Wish-Fulfilling Golden Sun of the Mahayana Thought Training, which served as the teaching text for the course. Rinpoche accepted the offer, and for several years Nick lived at Kopan, attending the month-long courses, working on revisions to The Wish-Fulfilling Golden Sun, and editing notes and transcriptions from Rinpoche’s teachings into course commentaries.
After many years of offering service to a variety of FPMT activities, including Wisdom Publications, Nick founded the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive, which is responsible for the collection and dissemination of Lama Yeshe’s and Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s teachings and advice. How to Practice Dharma: Teachings on the Eight Worldly Dharmas is the Archive’s most recent publication and the second in their FPMT Lineage Series. In July 2012, Mandala spoke with Nick, who currently serves as the Archive’s director, about the evolution of the FPMT Lineage Series and how its roots stretch all the way back to The Wish-Fulfilling Golden Sun.
Mandala: In the publisher’s preface to the new book How to Practice Dharma, you write about how during your first Kopan course in 1972 you encountered Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s textbook The Wish-Fulfilling Golden Sun of the Mahayana Thought Training. Can you describe how that first textbook looked and what has happened subsequently to it?
Nick: It was legal size or, in British English, foolscap. The book was tall and skinny with two holes punched and bound with a kind of a shoelace. Then it had a loose cover on it.
It was put together by Massimo Corona and some of the other students from the second course, which happened in March 1972. It was pretty rough and the English was pretty sketchy, but Rinpoche went through it line by line, paragraph by paragraph, section by section; we didn’t get through the whole book during the month of the third course, which was the first one that I attended, but he would read part of it and then give an explanation. I guess you saw the story of how I got to Kopan in Mandala [July-September 2011]. I certainly wasn’t expecting a life-changing experience, but that is what it turned out to be, and somehow at the heart of it was this book. This is what we studied and read every day.
At the end after the course, I remember we had a group photo on top of the hill at Kopan, and after the group photo, I went up to Rinpoche and said, “Rinpoche, thank you for changing my life.” He kind of laughed and held my hand, and we sort of started to walk down the hill holding hands, but I was too shy and I pulled away. It was pathetic.
Subsequently, I went to him and said, “Look, I think this is really a great book, but I think it could be improved.” He said, “Well, yeah. It was put together basically by the students, and I have some ideas. I would like to revise the whole thing. So, if you would like to help me, you can.” Between the third course and the fourth course, my girlfriend at the time, Yeshe Khadro, and I spent several hours for at least six weeks with Rinpoche re-writing the whole thing, basically from cover to cover, and creating a new edition for the fourth course in spring 1973.
After the fourth course, some of us went up to Lawudo for the first time. I had my notes from the third course and the notes from the fourth course of Brian Beresford and myself. During that time at Lawudo, I started putting together these notes as a commentary to the Wish-Fulfilling Golden Sun. In the course of doing that, I realized how much of Rinpoche’s teachings we missed by just taking notes, so I determined for the next course, the fifth, to write down (we didn’t have electricity at Kopan at the time or tape recorders) as much of it as I could.
At the fifth course, I sat down right in front of the throne with a big, fat Indian notebook and started writing. For the whole month, I wrote down pretty much everything he said, making up abbreviations as I went along, writing in my best medical student scrawl. The amazing thing afterwards was that Yeshe Khadro could read what I had written, including the abbreviations, so she typed it all up. Then I edited that transcript.
Up to that time we had been printing on a Gestetner duplicating machine, a machine that printed from wax stencils. You take the ribbon out of a typewriter, and you reel a wax stencil into the typewriter, and you type on it. The keys cut the wax. It is quite tedious, and if you make a mistake, you have to paint over it with nail polish and then wait for that to dry and try to line that letter up again, and you hit it again and it cuts through. Where there is a mistake, it comes out blotchy because it doesn’t cut cleanly. These stencils have a kind of strip on top with holes punched in it. The holes clip onto something that holds them at the top of the roller. You ink up the roller, and then you roll this stencil through. The ink goes through where you have cut it with the typewriter keys, and it prints onto the paper. It can be done by hand, or later on, they had electric ones.
After we printed some of these in downtown Kathmandu, I said to Lama Yeshe, “I think that it makes sense that we get our own Gestetner machine.” We could do our own printing instead of paying these Nepalese businesses. He was always into saving money; but he was also not into spending money. Much to my amazement, he agreed. It was quite a lot of money – 15,000 rupees or something – to buy one of these things, but he agreed we could buy it, which really kind of shocked me. At first we kept it down at Sister Max [Mathews]’ house in Kathmandu because she had electricity. Then later on when we got electricity at Kopan, I think in 1974, we brought it up and had our own little printing press at Kopan.
The monks used to write their own stencils. If you didn’t use a typewriter, you could use special sharp stencil cutters like a stylus with a rounded, but fairly pointed tip. So they used to write their own Tibetan texts.
In between courses, I would work with Rinpoche to keep refining the book. For the first few courses, the book kept having material added or changed or modified. We printed a new version before the fourth course, the fifth course, the sixth course, the seventh course, and then in 1975 (the Lamas [Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche] had started traveling in 1974), when I traveled with the Lamas on that world tour. I do remember doing some work with Rinpoche at Chenrezig Institute [in Australia] on some changes he wanted to make to the book, but that was the last time we did any editorial work on it. A new edition was printed for the eighth course at the end of 1975. At that time in 1975, the courses started becoming annual rather than twice a year because the Lamas were traveling. Rinpoche used the book for the next two or three years, and I think in 1978 or 1979, he stopped using it altogether. I was never quite sure why, but he didn’t teach from it anymore. That was the end of the development of the book, actually.
For the Lamas’ teachings in Australia in 1976, it was printed with spiral binding and much better printing. I think this was produced by Ven. Robina Courtin. Robina’s family had a printing company in Melbourne, Commando Printing Services, and they printed this version. Brian Beresford’s and my notes that I edited in Lawudo in 1973 became Meditation Course Notes, Volume I. This was our notes from the third and fourth courses. Then the notes that I took in the fifth course became a 400-page commentary on the Wish-Fulfilling Golden Sun.
These are all online now at lamayeshe.com. Our goal is to put up the transcripts of all Rinpoche’s Kopan Course teachings. I think we have over half of them online at the moment. Hopefully, by the end of this year or next year, we will have all 40 course transcripts in their entirety online.
Mandala: What drew you to this work? You didn’t have an editing or publishing background, yet here you are all these years later having done so much of it, first at Kopan, then at Wisdom and now with the Archive.
Nick: Most of the people left after the Kopan Course, but Yeshe Khadro and I both felt that we wanted to stay and help the Lamas. They completely changed our lives, and we wanted to help them. We did some different things after the course; we helped organize the Kopan library which was pretty rudimentary. She was a nurse; I was a doctor, so we set up the first clinic at Kopan to treat the young monks, the Westerners, and the local Nepali villagers. But, I don’t know, I think I knew what good writing was, and there was no one else around. I just threw out the idea to Rinpoche, and he immediately jumped on it. So I kind of got into it like that. Rinpoche had a lot to say. So I think it just became natural that we wanted to preserve those teachings and make them available, too.
This is not how I thought my life would turn out. I didn’t leave Australia in the early ’70s on a spiritual quest. I left looking for a good time. I certainly found that along the way, but then I finished up on a path that leads to the best possible time. One way is to say this all happened by accident. But I could also look back at all my years before I left Australia and how my medical career didn’t quite develop as I thought it was going to and I could see Lama Yeshe kind of reeling me in. Not that I really think that he was aware of my existence or that I could at all be useful, but there is a way of looking at it where you could see somehow karmically that was happening. There was some connection from the past, and it was gradually bringing me step by step closer to the Lamas with whom I think there must be past connections. That is how it works. It was actually for me very strong. Lama Yeshe finished up marrying my mother. [Laughs.]
Mandala: Tell us about the relationship between the new book How to Practice Dharma and Publishing the FPMT Lineage. And how are the early Kopan courses connected to the Archive and the FPMT Lineage Series?
Nick: Both of the Lamas’ teachings are important, but Rinpoche gave by far the most teachings. Lama Yeshe would drop in now and then at the end of the course. He would come and give a talk on refuge and precepts and give refuge and precepts and sometimes bodhisattva vows, but the vast majority of the teachings were by Rinpoche. To a certain extent, it was useful to bring out these huge commentaries for the students who were there. We would print out a couple of hundred copies, but they weren’t that reader friendly.
I did six or seven Kopan courses in a row until Lama Yeshe sent me to Delhi to start Tushita Mahayana Meditation Centre, and then I stopped living in Kopan and started living in Delhi. I was at the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth courses, I think.
During my time at Kopan, I saw what would be useful would be to produce a series of topic-based commentaries on the nature of the mind, on the perfect human rebirth, on impermanence and death, on the three lower realms, refuge and karma – the main lam-rim topics that were really the heart of Rinpoche’s teachings. So, this was an idea that has been in my mind for 35-40 years.
Creating books from teachings is so much editorial work. For a person to be able to edit the Lamas’ teachings, you needed to meet basically five criteria: a good understanding of Dharma; a familiarity with the Lamas’ language; the ability to create a coherent manuscript with a beginning, middle and end; the time to do it; and essentially, the ability to do it for nothing or for little money. Who can do all that? Also, what tends to happen in FPMT is that the people who do want to put their life into it full-time already have so much else to do. Editing books takes time; you really need to work full-time at it. Even when we established Wisdom Publications, obviously, a large part of our mission would have been to publish the teachings of Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche. But somehow, the way the company developed, there was never enough money to pay people to edit the Lamas’ teachings.
The first Wisdom Publications book [Wisdom Energy, published in 1976] was edited by Jon Landaw and Alex Berzin from the Lamas’ 1974 lectures in the United States. That sort of came together as a labor of love. Later, Brian Beresford showed up with Advice from a Spiritual Friend, teachings by Geshe Rabten and Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, which were a couple of thought-training commentaries. We did the first print of that in Delhi. Then Lama said we should set up Wisdom in Delhi, and in 1978 Robina came down to work with me on that. I was there trying to start the center. Then Lama Yeshe changed his mind and said, “No, we should do it at Manjushri Institute.” He called together Jon Landaw, Chris Kolb, Robina and some other people who were there studying in the geshe program, including, Thubten Wangmo, Thubten Yeshe, Sangye Khadro, and Connie Miller. So they got involved in editing some teachings, and then they put out Silent Mind, Holy Mind some of Lama’s Christmas lectures, and then they did a couple of books of Kelsang Gyatso, the resident geshe at Manjushri Institute.
Wisdom gradually gravitated more towards London, then the guy who was running it quit, and Lama Yeshe asked me to take over in 1983. We started getting manuscripts like Jeffery Hopkins’ Meditation on Emptiness. And other authors were sending us fairly complete manuscripts, which were much easier to edit and publish. So the Lamas’ teachings were always put on the back burner because these things that were easier and less cost intensive to publish came along. Gradually, Wisdom developed, publishing other people’s teachings and not Lama Yeshe’s and Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s. It very rarely happened that the Lamas’ books got done.
In 1995 and ’96, when circumstances came about that I should leave Wisdom and when I wasn’t sure what I would do, Rinpoche said, “Well, take the Archive out of Wisdom, and set it up as a separate FPMT entity and focus on that.” He never said “focus on my teachings.” He always couched it in terms of focusing on Lama Yeshe’s teachings, but obviously it included Rinpoche’s teachings. So we set up the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive as a separate FPMT entity.
In the past, whenever I started something like Tushita Mahayana Meditation Centre or when I was looking for funding for Wisdom, or doing different projects like starting Kurukulla Center (after we eventually moved to Boston with Wisdom,) I tended to put out a brochure that explains the project. Starting with IMI [International Mahayana Institute] back in 1974 and trying to get funding for Mount Everest Centre, we’d put out a brochure that explains the project, and people sent us money. So this time, I thought I would do it differently. I put out a little book containing Lama Yeshe’s teachings and sent that around so people could actually get a taste of what the Archive contains. We put out the first edition of Becoming Your Own Therapist. That was so unbelievably, wildly successful, and we got so much feedback saying, “Wow! These are amazing teachings and it is amazing that it is a free book.” That set us on the course of doing free books.
These were just scratching the surface of what the Archive contained. We had this idea that the Archive would create books for Wisdom Publications to publish, but somehow Wisdom was never able to put in enough money, because the amount of money it took to do things would never be recouped by selling the books. It wasn’t really a workable business model from Wisdom’s point of view.
Mandala: How was the Archive finally able to begin publishing a series based on Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s lam-rim teachings?
Nick: In 2007, after about five years of trying to raise enough money to hire editors and publish more of the Lamas’ teachings, I got a letter from Rinpoche saying we weren’t doing things well enough or fast enough – you know, our operations were rusty. So, I came up with this new plan called Publishing the FPMT Lineage, which was a million-dollar-plus plan. What it involved was paying someone to travel with Lama Zopa Rinpoche to record everything he taught because we weren’t getting recordings in a timely fashion from the centers and what we got was often of poor quality – basically untranscribable – and sometimes we didn’t get anything at all. It also included paying transcribers and people to edit. Jen Barlow, our finance manager, and I flew to Portland and presented the plan to FPMT International Office, but they were unable to offer financial support to it.
A month later, I got an email from one of Rinpoche’s Asian students, who I didn’t know even existed, saying that she was looking on the website and saw an older fundraising plan and was wondering how it was coming together – maybe she could help us with that. I said, “Well, that plan didn’t work, but have I got a plan for you!” I sent her the US$1,045,000 plan. She said, “Ok, look, I’ll send you $45,000 right away, and I’ll give you half a million as a matching grant. You raise money to match it, and there is your million dollars. But I won’t wait for you to get the funds. I will give you the half million right away so that you can start immediately, but over five years you have to raise $100,000 a year.” I said, “Ok. I’ll take the money,” which I did, and we’ve been able to raise the money each year to match it.
That immediately allowed us to hire Ven. [Thubten] Kunsang to start traveling with Rinpoche and record him. As for transcribers, we ended up hiring one person, Ven. [Thubten] Munsel, as our chief transcriber. She doesn’t work full-time because to do 40 hours a week is just too hard, but she does a lot. We could probably do with another person, because there is still a huge backlog from the ’80s and ’90s that has not been transcribed. But transcribers are hard to find. We have had so many come and go. They try it; they can’t do it. Either they can’t hear Rinpoche or they get too much lung doing it. There are a lot of obstacles to that job for some reason. But, anyway, a lot is getting transcribed.
In terms of hiring editors, we tried a few people. Then Gordon McDougall, who is a long-time student of the Lamas and had been involved with the Hong Kong center, got involved. When he was in London, he worked with Geshe Tashi Tsering to develop and edit the six books in Geshe Tashi’s Foundation of Buddhist Thought series published by Wisdom.
We also were able to hire Ven. (as she was then) Namdrol [Miranda Adams] part-time. She edited Yangsi Rinpoche’s Lamrim Chenmo commentary called Practicing the Path for Wisdom, and we hired her to start going through all Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s lam-rim teachings and “basketing” them. As you read through a Kopan course transcript, you cut and paste the teaching into a topic basket: perfect human rebirth, refuge, karma, yada, yada, yada. There are so many things that Rinpoche covered from one course to another.
The idea was we would collect everything Rinpoche has ever said on perfect human rebirth into the perfect human rebirth basket and so forth. When everything is chopped up like that and basketed, then you go back, sort out all the teachings and you make a coherent whole on the topic out of it. We decided some years ago that we would use the outline from Pabongka Rinpoche’s Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand to organize these teachings as that was probably the main lam-rim text that Rinpoche used to refer to when he was giving his “lam-rim commentaries.” It was that and The Essential Nectar, but mainly that. So we decided to use the outline of Liberation since we had it and since it was quite detailed and quite extensive.
Then Maitripa College started, and Namdrol had to work for that, so she couldn’t do the basketing anymore. Ven. Trisha Donnelly took over; I think she was between her stints as Root Institute director. So between Namdrol and Trisha, we had a lot of the teachings basketed. By the time Gordon came on board, he had a lot of material to work with, and the system was kind of established, so he went through and did the rest. Still we had this idea we needed five editors. But then as Gordon started working on it, it became fairly apparent that, actually, one full-time editor was probably enough.
We were also putting more and more teachings online, so then we started organizing the online teachings a little better. We started Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s Online Advice Book. Originally Michelle Bernard was working on that. Then we hired Sandy Smith in Australia, an old student of Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa from Chenrezig Institute in the ’70s, to be our web editor. Rather than hiring five book editors like we’d planned, we hired a couple of people to be web editors. Gordon, we found, was able to actually manage most of the lam-rim editing. Ven. Ailsa Cameron was still doing editing, too. She did the book Heart of the Path, on the guru devotion teachings, which is, in retrospect, the first book in the FPMT Lineage Series. We also have Ross Moore from Melbourne. He is editing Rinpoche’s emptiness teachings.
Gordon started producing manuscripts, and we didn’t really find anybody else that we needed, but at that point, Wendy Cook stepped down after six years as director of Kurukulla Center, and somehow none of the replacements that Rinpoche checked either could do it or came out. So Rinpoche basically threw my name in the hat and pulled me out, and I had to do that for two years, which was good. I was able to complete the stupa project that Wendy had begun. During those two years, Geshe Tsulga had been diagnosed with cancer. He passed away at the end of 2010.
Because I was so busy running the center, my archive work got quite a bit behind. Gordon kept churning out the manuscripts, so now we have, I think, seven or eight for me to get to because I really need to go through them. Also during this time, Adele Hulse finished writing Lama Yeshe’s biography [Big Love]. We hired Ven. Connie Miller for that. She’s been working on Lama Yeshe’s biography for the last three-and-a-half years. Jon Landaw is helping as a consultant editor on that as well. But Big Love is not coming out of the Publishing the FPMT Lineage project. It’s a separate fund. Additionally, Ven. Sarah Thresher is developing our new Heart Advice Series, based on Rinpoche’s more recent teachings.
We also decided to build up the FPMT photo archive, so we hired David Zinn to do that. David has been working for us for three or four years as a photo editor, or, digital imaging specialist, as we call him. It is important to document FPMT history in photos, but also there will be material for Lama Yeshe’s biography and we are able to use a lot of the photos in the FPMT Lineage Series books.
The first book I thought we should do is Rinpoche’s teachings on the eight worldly dharmas, which is something that I have wanted to do since 1974, when during the Sixth Kopan Course Rinpoche gave his most extensive teaching on the eight worldly dharmas. That is partly the backbone of the new book How to Practice Dharma. Following this, teachings on the perfect human rebirth and impermanence and death have been sponsored. The matching grant for Publishing the FPMT Lineage project pays for the editing, but it doesn’t pay for the printing. We find sponsors to cover the printing costs. How to Practice Dharma was covered by sponsors in Singapore.
Mandala: Oh really, how much does it cost to sponsor the printing of a book?
Nick: About $15,000 U.S. dollars.
Mandala: How many books do you have printed when you do a print run and where are they printed.
Nick: Usually we print 5,000 copies with a printer in Michigan. And you know, all of our books are available as e-books now.
Mandala: These days, at least in the Western world, I think we have almost come to take for granted access to authentic Dharma teachings, because we can access them day or night online, especially if we are English speakers. It is something to rejoice in. Clearly the Archive, Wisdom and other publishers and technology developments have all made this possible, but sometimes I feel like the stack of unread Dharma books at my home is more than I can read in one lifetime and they just accumulate like anything else. What are your thoughts on the availability and publishing of Dharma materials in 2012? With your 40 years’ experience in this area, can you give us some perspective on how things have changed.
Nick: If you stack up all the authentic (and I say authentic because there is a lot of inauthentic stuff out there) English language Dharma books, and you compare them to a stack of Tibetan texts, it would be tiny. We think there is a huge amount of Dharma books, but look at the amount of writing in Tibet. There is the Kangyur and the Tengyur, they themselves contain far more than the English language Dharma books. Then there are thousands and thousands, probably hundreds of thousands of Tibetan texts (texts that were written in Tibet) over a thousand years – Tsongkhapa’s collected works, this lama’s collected works, that lama’s collected works. There will never be in the English language anywhere near what is available in Tibetan. Right there is part of your answer. And, I think you can never have too much Dharma.
There is no one person who has read every Tibetan book, so there will never be an English speaker who has read every English book. I find it useful to have all these books because when I am working on something, I can refer to all these books. We like to footnote our books. We can read more about this topic or that topic, or you can look books up to confirm something that you are not clear about when you are editing.
I think that is very useful, but I certainly know what you mean. I’ve got a huge collection of books. I’ve got every Wisdom book. I’ve got most of the Snow Lion books. I’ve got many Shambhala books, and those are just the Dharma publishers. I’ve got many books by His Holiness, and you know, most of them are unread.
When I first got into it, we were hard-pressed 40 years ago to find an authentic English language Dharma book to be honest. I think these days people are incredibly fortunate to be able to find books that they can relate to and connect with and read.
You can visit the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive online, where you can find teachings and advise from Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche, historic photos, information on how you can support the Archive’s work and more.
- Tagged: interview, kopan course, lama yeshe, lama yeshe wisdom archive, lama zopa rinpoche, mandala, nicholas ribush
DHARMA AND THE MODERN WORLD
In April 2011, Geshe Kelsang Wangmo made history by becoming the first female geshe, signaling a new era for nuns to excel scholastically and to take on important teaching roles that had traditionally been the domain of monks. “It has been a great pleasure to see that Ven. Kelsang Wangmo has been awarded with the Geshe degree and I hope that many nuns, some having finished their study for years already, will follow very soon,” Ven. Kunphen, spiritual program coordinator at Tushita Meditation Centre in Dharamsala, recently told Mandala. “It’s quite a big step, which will heighten the esteem and value nuns are given considerably.”
Geshe Wangmo participated in an email interview from her home in McLeod Ganj, India, with Mandala in July 2012. You can read our full story about Geshe Wangmo and the emergence of the female geshe in the print issue of Mandala October-December 2012.
Mandala: How did you come to be a student of Tibetan Buddhism and a nun?
Geshe Wangmo: I was born and raised in Germany, and after finishing high school and before enrolling in university I decided to take some time off and travel. It was a very confusing time. I did not know what to study, and, even more importantly, what to do with my life. I felt drawn to pursuing medicine, but at the same time had a great interest in psychology, anthropology and languages. Sometimes I wanted to get married, start a family, and settle down near my hometown, while at other times I wanted to be independent and live on a different continent. I hoped that taking time off and traveling would help me make a decision.
I set off for Egypt and after that Israel, where I volunteered in a kibbutz for a few months. Then I backpacked through Greece, Turkey and Thailand. When I ran out of money, I spent some time working in Japan before continuing to travel to Indonesia and eventually to India.
When I arrived in Calcutta in spring 1990, it was already quite hot, so I took a train north to Varanasi. After plenty of sight-seeing, heat rushes and dysentery, I traveled on to the hill station Manali, where other backpackers told me about Dharamsala, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan community in exile, and … great chocolate cake. Therefore, I decided to spend a few days in McLeod Ganj before returning to Germany.
Arriving in McLeod Ganj in the late afternoon, I felt a little exhausted and disappointed. Even though I had met great people and learned a lot during my travels, including encountering interesting cultures and customs, I still had not found the answers I was looking for.
Most of the hotels were booked when I got in. I ended up sharing a double room with three other girls. Going to bed that night, sleeping on the floor, I felt quite lost and unhappy. Upon waking up, however, everything had changed. I remember opening my eyes, seeing a bedbug crawl up on the bedpost next to my head and thinking how happy I was. I felt so happy and peaceful that I decided to extend my visit and stay for a few weeks. Looking back, I think the reason for the dramatic shift in my feelings is that McLeod Ganj – even now despite its countless hotels, restaurants and tourists – is a very special and blessed place due to the presence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, other great lamas and numerous practitioners.
I found a nice room and started to explore McLeod Ganj and its surrounding areas. After a few weeks I signed up for a Buddhist meditation course led by an Indian who was born and raised in the Parsee (Zoroastrian) community of Bombay. As a young man he had developed an interest in Theravada Buddhism, had become a Buddhist and started to give Theravada Buddhist courses with teachings and meditation.
The first day of his teachings, which was on the four noble truths, completely transformed my life. Although I had countless questions, the majority of what he explained made great sense to me; it was as if everything fell into place, and I immediately wanted to learn more about the Dharma. Following the course, the Indian teacher organized a one-month summer retreat at Tushita Meditation Centre, which I also attended. During that time, I read Lama Yeshe’s Wisdom Energy which had a great impact on me and drew me to the Mahayana teachings.
After the summer retreat, I started to attend teachings by Tibetan lamas such as Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche, Lati Rinpoche and so forth. In autumn 1990, I went to Kopan monastery in Nepal, attended a course by Ven. Karin Valham and following that, attended the one-month November course taught by Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche. By that time, I had developed great faith in Tibetan Buddhism and wanted to become a nun.
Having finally found what I had been looking for, I called my parents to explain what I had been doing for the past months and to ask them for their blessing to become ordained. Not surprisingly, my mother got extremely worried since she did not know anything about Tibetan Buddhism and assumed I had joined a cult. “Don’t give away your money!” she warned me for she thought I might have been brainwashed into doing so. She literally got on the next plane from Germany and a day later arrived in Nepal.
Once at Kopan, my mother was able to see for herself what I was doing. She met some of the German speaking students and came to understand how much becoming ordained meant to me. Nonetheless, she asked me to wait a few months and, since I had been having an ongoing problem with dysentery, to come with her to Germany to recover. If after that time I still wanted to become a nun, my parents would give me their blessing. Before returning to Germany, my mother and I traveled to Varanasi in order to attend the Kalachakra initiation given by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, although I hardly understood anything, and my mother spent the teaching sessions shopping in Varanasi.
In spring 1991, after spending a couple of months with my family, I returned to Dharamsala. I rented a room at Tushita, and took rabjung ordination from Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche. Unsure of where to go as a newly ordained nun, I decided to stay in the protected environment of Tushita and work in the library. In the monsoon, I attended the three-month Vajrasattva retreat there.
Where did you meet Lama Zopa Rinpoche? What is your connection to Rinpoche?
During all these months I was burning to meet Lama Zopa Rinpoche, having heard so much about him. Unfortunately, he was too busy at the time to be able to come to Tushita.
However, after the Vajrasattva retreat I heard a rumor that Rinpoche might be teaching at the Kopan November course. Thus in autumn 1991, I traveled to Nepal and after some time finally met Rinpoche. He taught part of the November course and had an impact on me that no other lama, except His Holiness the Dalai Lama, has ever had. I find it impossible to express the way Rinpoche makes me feel, but just thinking about it brings tears to my eyes. He is one of the most amazing beings I have ever met and has truly changed my life through his profoundly inspiring example and his peerless teachings.
After the November course, I took getsul ordination from Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche together with Ven. Tony Beaumont, Ven. Rita Riniker, Ven. Fran Mohoupt and a few other Westerners. I also had an audience with Lama Zopa Rinpoche, who advised me to do 400,000 prostrations, 300,000 mandala offerings, 200,000 refuge prayers and so on. From Kopan, I went to Bodhgaya to start prostrations. Once the heat became too intense, I continued in Dharamsala where I took a room at Elysium House near Tushita.
Initially, I truly enjoyed the quiet and peaceful retreat environment and spending a lot of time on my own. However, I gradually came to see my own limitations, especially since I had so little understanding of the Dharma and so many questions. That is when I decided to learn Tibetan and take more teachings.
After receiving permission from Lama Zopa Rinpoche and Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche, I set out to find a Tibetan teacher. A friend of mine, a Tibetan nun who is the niece of the late Gen Lamrimpa, told me about a very learned and experienced teacher from the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, Geshe Gyatso-la. The next day I went to see him and asked him to teach me Tibetan. He replied, “I will teach you how to debate because that is the quickest way to learn Tibetan.” Seeing as I did not know anything about debate and wanted to learn Tibetan as fast as possible, I was thrilled. This is how I was introduced to the highly effective tool of debate.
When did you enter into the geshe program? Can you describe what is involved in pursuing a Geshe degree? Was that made more difficult because you are female?
I found the technique of debate so helpful that in 1993 I signed up for the new class of the geshe study program at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics. At the time, I did not know exactly what the program involved and how long it would take. I actually thought that because it was described as very demanding and difficult, I probably would not last long. I therefore decided to study for about two years, hoping to be able to learn enough to be able to read the scriptures and receive direct instructions from Tibetan teachers.
As I knew that the majority of my classmates would be male, I also looked into the possibility of pursuing my studies at one of the nunneries. However, at that time, Tibetan nunneries did not admit foreign nuns in their study programs since they could hardly accommodate and feed their own students. Dolma Ling consisted of a few nuns who were crammed together in a small Indian building near the place where their nunnery is located now. There were only about 12 nuns at Jamyang Choling and they lived in renovated cow sheds in McLeod Ganj while in the process of purchasing land for their new nunnery. Even though Ganden Choling in McLeod Ganj had already established a proper institute, they were extremely overcrowded with new nuns arriving from Tibet on an almost daily basis. Finally, due to visa restrictions and similar circumstances in the remaining nunneries in India and Nepal, I decided that the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics was the best place for me.
Initially, my class consisted of more than 40 students, the majority of whom were Tibetan monks. We also had quite a few foreign students, but unfortunately after a few months, most of them left the class, except for a British monk (Ven. Josh Gluck) and a layman from the United States (Don Eisenberg), both of whom continued for about 10 years.
Our study curriculum is based on the curriculum of Drepung Loseling Monastery; we use the same scriptures and most of our teachers were trained there. The first year we studied Collected Topics (Tib.: due tra), Awareness and Knowledge (Tib.: lo rig), and Signs and Reasoning (Tib.: ta rig). Then for the next six years, we studied the Abhisamayaalamkara by Maitreya, which is also referred to as the study of the Prajñaparamita Sutras (the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras). Following that, we studied for three years Madhyamaka (the Middle Way), two years the Abhidharmakosha (Treasury of Knowledge), and two years the Vinaya (Discipline). Given that the institute was founded by His Holiness the Dalai Lama who wants students to receive a rime, or non-sectarian, education, we also spent three semesters studying and debating the other three Tibetan traditions. Our institute invited a khenpo from Namdroel-ling for the Nyingma tradition. After that we spent one semester at Dzongsar Shetra for the Sakya tradition and one semester at Sherap Ling for the Kagyü tradition. The last two years of the program we studied Lama Tsongkhapa’s The Great Stages of Tantra (Tib.: nga rim chen mo).
Except for Sundays, we usually had an hour and a half of class and about four hours of debate every day. At the end of each year, we had to take written and debate exams. After we completed the Abhisamayaalamkara/Prajñaparamita sutras, we took numerous different written and debate exams testing us on the entire six years of the topic. We were similarly tested after completing the study of Madhyamaka. For the remaining years, we annually had to take three to four exams and at the very end submitted a 50-page thesis in Tibetan.
Although I knew a little about debate at the beginning of the program, I hardly knew any spoken Tibetan, which made it extremely difficult to communicate with my classmates. Nevertheless, as Geshe Gyatso-la had said, it did not take too long to pick it up, since the debate – as Tibetans would say – “had made my tongue nimble.”
Our class was very fortunate because many of my classmates came from Sera, Drepung or Ganden Monasteries, where they had already studied for many years. They were sent to the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics by their teachers in order to study English or Tibetan grammar, or because they had health issues due to the hot climate in South India. Even though some of them were already very advanced, the institute’s rule at the time was to enroll everyone in the beginner’s class. This proved to be of great advantage to the rest of our class because during debate, one basically learns from one another. Furthermore, some of us had the fortune to spend our winter vacations at Drepung Loseling Monastery to further our studies. In the beginning, I was even allowed to participate in the debate with the monks there.
Nonetheless, I found the first 10 years extremely difficult. Due to the language barrier and the cultural differences, I was often confused and bewildered, not understanding why things were done in a certain way. On top of that, Tibetan not being my native language, I had to work incredibly hard to not fall behind. Even more difficult than those challenges was the fact that I was the only woman in my class. The study program was so demanding and time-consuming that it was nearly impossible to maintain social contacts outside of the program. Therefore, any interaction with other people took place on the debate ground, in class, when we got together to prepare a debate and so forth. Even though my classmates were extremely close to each other, they tried to be good monks and did not want to spend time with a nun. I was only close to maybe one or two of my classmates who would occasionally come to see me and cheer me up. At times, I was so lonely and miserable that I did not know how to get through the next months.
I think it is primarily due to the kindness of my amazing teacher Geshe Gyatso-la that I did not give up. Whenever I had a problem, I could go to see him. He would help me with my studies, explain difficult points, give me advice and encourage me to continue. On top of that, it was also the joy of doing the studies that kept me going. Studying and debating the sacred Buddhist scriptures has given me a deep sense of happiness and satisfaction. It has made my life so much more meaningful and set my mind in the direction of the Dharma. This is why, despite the hardships, I do not regret even a single day of the last 18 years.
I took my final exam at the end of 2009, and about a year later submitted my 50-page thesis. The topic I chose for my thesis was dependent arising.
Although I was told that the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics was working towards receiving permission to give the Geshe degree to those who had successfully completed the program, I did not believe this would happen any time soon since traditionally only Sera, Drepung and Ganden can give the degree. Many of our monks were actually able to get their Geshe degree at Drepung Loseling Monastery because, upon having completed all of their exams at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, they merely had to spend some time at Drepung, go through some formalities (such as officially joining Drepung Loseling Monastery, etc.), and within a few weeks received the degree. However, since only monks can join a monastery, this is not an option for nuns. Therefore, the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics made great efforts to be able to give the degree to all of its students, including the nuns.
In April 2011, it finally happened: permission was granted by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Ministry for Religion and Culture. In an elaborate ceremony, my classmates and I, together with the students of a senior class, were given the Geshe degree.
Although this was slightly controversial, a number of Tibetans have told me that it was instrumental in paving the way for nunneries to be able to establish the Geshe degree for nuns. Starting next year, nuns from the Gelug nunneries in India and Nepal who have completed their study program will have the opportunity to review their studies and take exams for another four years. Upon successful completion, those nuns will become geshes.
What advice would you give to a nun entering a geshe program?
My advice for nuns entering the geshe program would be not to be intimidated by the many years that lay ahead, but instead, to take it a day at a time. Most important is to prevail and not to give up. I am confident that if a nun as average and ordinary as myself can do it, any nun can do it – if she just hangs in there.
As Buddhism is slowly spreading and, hopefully, taking roots in the West, we need more Western monks and nuns who have done in-depth study and debate of the Buddhist scriptures and who are able, without having to rely on a translator, to pass on their knowledge to other Westerners. Furthermore, without a good grasp on the Buddhist teachings, it is very difficult to engage in meaningful practice.
In fact, one should not regard Buddhist study as being separate from spiritual practice, but as an integral part of it. Many geshes explain study and debate as an analytical meditation, in the sense that one listens to the teachings, contemplates them during the debate and immediately makes an effort to become familiar with them so as to be able to integrate them in one’s daily life.
Now that you have finished the geshe program, how do you spend your time?
Even after finishing the geshe program, I am still spending a great part of my day reading the scriptures. Sometimes I review what I studied and sometimes I read texts that I previously did not have the opportunity to read. I also listen to teachings, go to see my teachers to ask questions and so forth.
A few years ago I started to teach the Abhisamayaalamkara/Prajñaparamita sutras in English. Every spring and autumn I teach a group of Westerners for about two months at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, gradually covering all of the topics the way they are covered in the monastic institutions. However, since there is not much written material available on this particular subject, I spend a lot of time translating parts of our texts and preparing handouts. Every year in the spring I also teach Buddhist philosophy to a group of students from Emory University in the United States who attend a study abroad program at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics.
Eventually, I would also like to go into longer retreat.
Have you been teaching at Tushita Meditation Centre or will you?
For the past 20 years I have felt a very strong connection with Tushita Meditation Centre, since it is the first Buddhist center where I received Dharma teachings. Over the last few years I have sometimes given short teachings at Tushita and have done some translations for some of the lamas during initiations. Recently, Lama Zopa Rinpoche visited Tushita and I had the great fortune to receive some of his teachings and have an audience with him. I had not seen Rinpoche since 1991 and being in his presence affected me very deeply. It is as if everything I learned during my studies came alive in the form of his person.
At that time Rinpoche’s attendant, Ven. Roger Kunsang, asked me to teach in one of the FPMT centers. However, since I feel very committed to be of service to the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, which has shown me such great kindness and support, I cannot leave Dharamsala for the time being. Therefore, I decided to offer my services to Tushita, where Ven. Kunphen is planning to organize a course on the mind, i.e., Awareness and Knowledge (Tib.: lo rig) for next year.
Was teaching something that you thought you might want to do when you first started studying Dharma?
When I first started studying the Dharma, I was not thinking much what I would do in the future. All I wanted to do was to learn more about this uniquely vast and profound philosophy.
You can read more about the emergence of the female geshe and our full story on Geshe Wangmo in the October-December 2012 print issue of Mandala.
Learn more about Tushita Meditation Centre and the programs offered there by visiting Tushita online.
- Tagged: geshe degree, geshe kelsang wangmo, institute of buddhist dialectics, interview, kirti tsenshab rinpoche, kopan course, lama zopa rinpoche, mandala, tushita meditation centre
Tenzin Ludup attendend the November Course at Kopan Monastery in Nepal 2011.
My name is Tenzin. I was born in Nepal to a third generation Tibetan family in exile. I currently live in America while the rest of my family is scattered between Nepal, India and America. The November Course at Kopan Monastery has always played an important part in my family’s religious life. All five of my siblings have attended the one-month lam-rim meditation course or other courses offered at Kopan Monastery.
Even though I’m a Tibetan and born a Buddhist, I have never truly understood or practiced my own religion until now. Living in the West, I had never managed to take time off to learn and practice the Dharma. I’ve always had respect for my religion and its teachers, but somehow it never really interested me enough to learn about it. This is probably due to the fact that I was born into it. I simply followed my family’s wishes when it came to matters of religion. Now I understand that I was just going with the flow of things without fully understanding the meaning of what I was doing.
I think this lack of understanding is very common among the younger generations of Tibetans, especially those in exile in the West. This seems to be especially true of my friends. We are just so immersed in our own lives in the West with its Western point of view that emphasizes materialistic happiness and lifestyles. Looking back now, my life was totally void of any spirituality.
The November Course was my mother’s way of introducing formal Buddhism into my life. She had done the same with my other siblings. Her idea was to introduce us to Buddhism through this course and then leave it up to us to decide for ourselves if it was something that we wanted to pursue further.
I have always been somewhat interested in attending this course but I did not know what to expect at all. Before I left for Nepal, I was constantly asked by my friends why I was attending this course and what I expected to get from it. I had no idea at the time and no particular answers for them. I went with no expectations even though the course title was “A Life Changing Event”! I did tell my friends that I would definitely get back to them with some answers.
On my first day at Kopan, I looked into my room and wondered how I was going make it through the month. I was to stay in a small basic dormitory room with three other students, and my bed was in the middle with hardly any space around it. I even complained about the accommodations to my mom, who was with me, like a spoiled son. She softly reminded me that I was not there on holiday and definitely shouldn’t be expecting any resort accommodations. As she was leaving, she whispered that this would be one of my life’s greatest gifts and asked me to embrace it. At that time I didn’t think much about that, but now I understand. I can never thank her enough for introducing the Dharma to my life.
My days at Kopan started off at 5 a.m. with optional prostrations and morning meditation. The prostrations are supposed to cleanse you from the negative karma accumulated in this and other past lives. Without doubt, I knew I had a lot of cleansing to do just from this life, so I promised myself not to miss a single day of prostrations, even though they were optional. There were times when I was sorely tempted to skip a few sessions because I just wanted to sleep a little bit longer and avoid the freezing morning cold. But with total determination I just about managed to keep my side of the promise.
For me, beginning with early morning prostrations helped me start my day by establishing a clear goal for the day. I had honestly never set any motivation like this before in my life. It literally made me take each day at a time. Another of the memorable morning experiences was being told everyday how lucky you were to be alive this day, reminding us that our lives were vulnerable and that death was certain. Being reminded of dying every morning was extremely powerful because it made me focus on the present and to make the best out of it. Like most people, I took living for granted.
The two sessions of teachings everyday reinforced many of my beliefs and helped me further understand the meaning behind the topics covered in the lam-rim. The lam-rim is the graduated path to enlightenment and was our course topic for the entire month. I had been aware of the lam-rim but never really understood it. Our teacher, Ven. Dhondup, an Australian monk for over 35 years, was experienced, precise and very easy to understand. Before this, I had never really experienced Dharma teachings in English. It was much easier to understand compared to hearing the teachings in Tibetan, perhaps because I am more comfortable in English than Tibetan in relation to understanding complex things such as the Dharma.
Some of the life experiences and analogies provided by the teacher in relation to the topics were extremely easy to understand and relate to. My favorites were of Ven. Dhondup’s life experiences with Lama Zopa Rinpoche during his time as his attendant. The question and answer sessions that followed at the end of each teaching were intriguing, too. There were about 260 students from 40 different countries, all with different backgrounds and different levels of knowledge about the Dharma. This was an extremely unique experience! Some of the questions I could relate to and some I couldn’t, but most were really thought provoking. The group discussions were extremely helpful because they aided my comprehension of the teachings and questions in that day’s lessons. Each discussion group had 10-13 people and provided an opportunity for all to have a say on the day’s questions.
The meditation sessions were twice a day and were taught by Ven. Amy, an American nun for over 10 years. It was, by far, the single most difficult thing that I experienced during my time at Kopan. The idea of meditation was completely new to me. I clearly remember the first session when a million things were flying across my mind all at once while I was trying to do single-pointed concentration meditation. Needless to say, I could only last a few seconds, but what I learned over time was that with time and practice, I could improve. Towards the end of the course I could meditate an impressive five minutes by my standards! That limited success would have been impossible without the help and guidance from Ven. Amy. I did find analytical meditation a bit easier. I still find it very challenging to meditate. I certainly never thought our minds could be so complex!
Like the teachings and meditations, my other experiences at Kopan Monastery were really wonderful. I met some of the nicest people, from all over the world, and I will always cherish them. I was always keen to ask about their experiences and their perspective on Buddhism. Although I did have some objections in the beginning to my accommodations, I can now honestly say I couldn’t have wished for any nicer roommates than the ones I had. I now believe it was karma. I can’t help but mention the cold showers some of us had to endure, but looking back, it was all such a truly memorable experience that I’m glad to have experienced every bit of it.
Because I could speak Tibetan, I got to know some of the monks at Kopan. That was an incredible experience because I was constantly sharing ideas and topics with them that we had covered in that day’s teachings. It gave me an opportunity to know more about their respective lives. It would be fair to say some of them were even more inquisitive than me and wanted to find out the topics we were covering in our class.
I must mention the food at Kopan Monastery. The food is vegetarian but was always excellent! It amazes me that the kitchen team prepared food for us and the monks (about 600-700 people) three meals a day and yet never compromised the quality of the food. I guess it was a massive logistical operation and I’m most thankful to the kitchen staff.
I would like to think my overall Kopan experience has transformed my thoughts, feelings and actions. It has certainly made me more aware of myself, my religion and my practice. It has definitely turned my wheel of Dharma. I would love to say it has totally changed me for the better, but I’m not as naïve as I used to be. I know change is gradual and requires patience. I know to study and implement the teachings is a completely different proposition now that I’m back in the West, but I am determined to keep practicing as much as I can in my everyday life. I’m also more aware of my life as a lay person with regards to my duties and responsibilities. I figure it’s all about trying to find the right balance in my life.
Coming back to the questions my friends posed about my expectations from this course, I have to say it’s up to them to notice if I’ve benefited or not. It’ll be interesting to hear what they have to say!
Born in Nepal, Tenzin Ludup now lives in Portland, Oregon, USA. He received a BA degree in 2006 from Portland State University. He currently helps with his family’s retail rug business.
You can learn more about the November Course at Kopan Monastery online.
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