Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Deer Park

Deer Park
Artist Tenzin Choephel, one of whom worked on temple art for the new center at Deer Park, seen at right
Source: Madison.com Photo Gallery

As referenced in the last post, in the summer of 1981 a Kalachakra initiation was held at Deer Park, about ten miles south of Madison, Wisconsin. It was the first Kalachakra ceremony for world peace held in the West.

Deer Park was founded in 1975 by Ven. Geshe Lhundup Sopa, who began offering Buddhist teachings and hosting Tibetan cultural events in Wisconsin in 1975. Invited to the U.S.A. by the University of Wisconsin to teach Tibetan, Sopa later retired as Professor of Buddhist Studies and has been teaching and sharing his knowledge for over three decades in the heartland of the States. In addition to being the founder and contributing much to the heart and soul of Deer Park Buddhist Center and its community, Geshe Lhundub Sopa is also the Director and Abbot of Deer Park Buddhist Center and Monastery.

Ven. Geshe Sopa was also instrumental in what today is a vigorous and sizeable Tibetan community in the local area. A majority of the exiles in the growing Tibetan diaspora in the mid to late 20th century found refuge and new home in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Switzerland, France, Great Britain, Canada and the United States. In the United States, as elsewhere, efforts of numerous individuals merged to help create resettlement nodes where Tibetans and their families could gradually move, settle and create new homes. The Madison, Wisconsin area was one such node.

As with many other centers, Deer Park has a history of offering not only numerous Buddhist teachings, but also interreligious events, conferences and retreats. A monastery on the grounds is the home to resident monks and as with many other centers, the aspiration and efforts to establish a temple reflective of Tibetan Buddhist architectural principles has come to fruition at Deer Park.

As Sopa himself remarks-

“The Deer Park Buddhist Center is a mirror of a Tibetan Buddhist Temple specifically designed to embody Buddha’s teachings."
-Ven. Geshe Lhundub Sopa, Article: Deer Park Center- Just About Ready

In his Introduction to the Temple Project at Deer Park, Geshe Sopa also remarks on the usefulness of the visual form of a building and it's accompanying arts to present to visitors the Buddha's teachings in visual form. Not only was the temple envisioned to be heavily modeled off of Tibetan Buddhist principles, but also to embody strong elements of sustainable design. Modern concepts of sustainable design and building merge with a traditional approach towards layout with respect and regards of the surrounding landscape and incorporating Buddhist symbology and art throughout the physical form.

AEI Affiliated Engineer's Design for Deer Park's new center
Source: AEI website

Monday, April 26, 2010

Kalachakra Initiations

Kalachakra Mandala, Samye Ling, Scotland

In the last post I briefly discussed the Kalachakra Initiation and my fingers are itching a bit to continue doing so. But patience....

The Kalachakra Initiation has been given many, many times all over the Earth by the various Kalachakra lineage holders and heads of different Tibetan Buddhist lineages. What follows below is a specific listing of Kalachakra Initiations given by H.H. The Dalai Lama, which can be found at the Dalai Lama's offical website along with the number in attendance.

May 1954-------------Norbulingka, Lhasa, Tibet
April 1956------------Norbulingka, Lhasa, Tibet
March 1970----------Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, India
January 1971--------Bylakuppe, Karnataka, India
December 1974-----Bodh Gaya, Bihar, India
September 1976-----Leh, Ladakh, India
July 1981-------------Madison, Wisconsin, USA
April 1983------------Dirang, Arunachal Pradesh, India
August 1983---------Tabo - Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, India
July 1985-------------Rikon, Switzerland
December 1985-----Bodh Gaya, Bihar, India
July 1988-------------Zanskar, Jammu & Kashmir, India
July 1989-------------Los Angeles, USA
December 1990-----Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh, India
October 1991--------New York, USA
August 1992---------Kalpa - Kinnaur, Hiamchal Pradesh, India
April 1993-----------Gangtok, Sikkim, India
July 1994-------------Jispa - Keylong, Himachal Pradesh, India
December 1994-----Barcelona, Spain
January 1995--------Mundgod, Karnataka, India
August 1995---------Ulan Bator, Mongolia
June 1996------------Tabo - Spiti, Hiamchal Pradesh, India
September 1996-----Sydney, Australia
December 1996-----Salugara, West Bengal, India
August 1999---------Bloomington, Indiana, USA
August 2000---------Kyi - Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, India
October 2002--------Graz, Austria
January 2003---------Bodh Gaya, Bihar, India
April 2004------------Toronto, Canada
January 2006---------Amarvati, Andhra Pradesh, India

Source: H.H. the XIV Dalai Lama of Tibet website

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Kalachakra in Indiana

Kalachakra Stupa in foreground and Changchub Stupa in the distance
Photo Source: Stupas in the West website

The Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center in Bloomington, Indiana was founded in 1979 by the 14th Dalai Lama's older brother, Thubten J. Noru (a.k.a. Takster Rinpoche), who is a retired professor from Indiana University. The Center is now spiritually directed by Arjia Rinpoche. The grounds are also home to Kumbum Chamtse Ling Monastery.

Chamtse Ling = Field of Compassion

Two stupas have also been constructed on this wooded property- a Kalachakra Stupa and a Changchub Stupa. A Kalachakra Initiation was held on the grounds of the Center in August 1999. The eleven day ceremony was, as per tradition, presided over by H.H. the Dalai Lama. The Kalachakra Stupa is a commemoration of this event- of world peace and harmony. The Changchub Stupa was built in 1987 in honor of Tibetan refugees.

I have not yet been to a Kalachakra Initiation. As the most complex, rigorous and highly revered Buddhist rite, I do not purport to understand the depth of it's purpose and intent, though I would like to eventually be present at a Kalachakra Initiation and Ceremony. The Kalachakra Initiations are open to anyone who wants to attend them, although observers clearly will not be a part of taking the actual initiation.

Kala= Time
Chakra= Wheel

"The word “Kalachakra” refers to cycles of time (kala meaning “time” and chakra meaning “wheel”)...and the Kalachakra system presents three such cycles: external, internal, and alternative. The external and internal cycles of time (samsara) deal with time as we normally know it, while the alternative cycle consists of practices for gaining liberation from these two. The alternative cycle of time entails a graded series of meditative practices."

The first time the Kalachakra Initiation was offered in the West was at Deer Park, close to Madison, Wisconsin, where now Deer Park Buddhist Monastery and Center exist. The Kalachakra Initiation in Bloomington was the seventh Initiation to be given in the "West" and the fourth on the North American continent.

Kalachakra Chorten (Stupa) and Kumbum Chamtse Ling Temple Monastery
Source: The Pluralism Project's photostream at flickr

The history of the Kalachakra extends centuries into the past, as well as to future times, and is wound with religious literature, mythology and tantric practice. This is the first time I have mentioned the Kalachakra in these pages. I have looked at some historical references to the Kalachakra and find endless intrigue in the texts, particularly with the explicit relevance to a future era of planetary society. I gradually up the ante on my readings of both Buddhist history and teachings. Concerning the Kalachakra, the diverse implications of this rite, the meaning for the individual and the society at large, are truly of critical interest.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Bird Song & Thunder Sound

Beyond the late afternoon chirping of the birds, there is the hint of a rumble of thunder here in southern Alabama. Before dawn this morning I sat perched at the window watching a spectacular lightning show.

Hours later, I find myself reeling at the sheer number of not just Buddhist resource sites online, but blogs and narratives. I would expect nothing less than an overwhelming amount of information (it being the internet of course) and once I start out on the trail, I am pretty thrilled to add these numerous sites to my ever expanding blog lists.

Amidst all the blog surfing, I came across a wonderful interview that immediately dove into the act and mindset of American Buddhists "relating" to the spirits of the land, such an act being an extension of respect, but also of grounding the spiritual practice in alignment with the local spirit realm.

Connections between Buddhism and Native American Practices is an interview with Lorain Fox Davis and Tsultrim Allione that originally appeared in Inquiring Mind magazine. They both bring in correlates of the Tibetan and Native American traditions view of the being as in a highly interactive relationship with the environment. Using the example of raven's calls and an entire Tibetan divination system based on call number and flight direction, Tsultrim notes:

"One aspect of awakening in Buddhism is an experience of this dynamic interdependence."

Lorain Fox Davis, who is Cree/Blackfeet and has been engaged with Tibetan Buddhist practices for over three decades, speaks of the similarities in Native American spirituality and Tibetan Buddhist teachings with regard to compassion for every creature. Such perceptions are threaded through indigenous worldviews on every continent. Likewise, natural phenomenon and land-forms are perceived as possessing not only the elements for creatures to sustain basic survival, but also a spiritual power. Thunder Beings, it is noted, are revered in both Native American and Tibetan Buddhism as "spiritual and physical manifestations of the Spirit."

The full interview is about three pages and and excellent read. Link to it here. I realized that this is the first, but certainly not the last time that I read or write about these women. Tsultrim Allione, a former Tibetan Buddhist nun, is the founder of
Tara Mandala, a retreat center in Southwestern Colorado and author of Women of Wisdom. Lorain Fox Davis is a faculty member for American Indian Studies Program at Naropa University, the founder and director of Rediscovery Four Corners, a non profit serving Native American youth and elders and as well as a teacher at Tara Mandala. I look forward to reading more on these figures.

With regard to your locality and all the presences it is home to, wherever you may be.

Triratna...by way of Maine

Now to the Northeastern extremity of the United States...Maine, where in capital city Portland the Nagaloka Buddhist Center has rooted itself in a downtown space.

Nagaloka is affiliated with FWBO, Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. The FWBO has recently changed its name to The Triratna Buddhist Community. Founded in 1967 by England native Urgyen Sangharakshita, the movement has a global path, with FWBO/Triratna affiliated groups, dharma and retreat centers in many countries. The movement is non-sectarian, drawing from Theravada, Hinayana and Vajrayana teachings and practices. Triratna's blog is very active and dynamic, with updates from many regions of the globe.

What strikes me immediately with this community is precisely how international and vast its span is, but also the emphasis on relating practice to modern life. Their website covers the extensive activities of the community, including prison programs, publications, school programs, approaches to 'right livelihood' businesses and numerous other social programs and activities reflecting the deep social engagement of many of the centers.

The central philosophy informing all Triaratna Buddhist Community activities is
"Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels," the three jewels representing the Buddha (historical figure as well as our own potential for enlightenment), Dharma (teachings) and Sangha (community). The new name for the community, Triratna, itself means Three Jewels and will be celebrated in a collective name change ceremony this May

Image above of Nagoloka's space in Maine from FWBO's news site. Visit their blog here.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Liberation Prison Project

"The word "kadampa" refers to those who are able to see the Buddha's teachings as personal advice that applies immediately to their own lives. "
-Kadampa Center website

Today's virtual visit takes us, for the first time in this blog, to southeastern U.S.A., to the Kadampa Center in Raleigh, North Carolina. The Kadampa Center for the Practice of Tibetan Buddhism in the Gelugpa Tradition was founded in 1992 by Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche who is also the Spiritual Director of FPMT (Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition). The center is part of the global network of FPMT centers that perpetuate a spiritual community of practitioners as well as publications and community projects.

One project at the Center that immediately caught my attention was the Liberation Prison Project
. An affiliate project of FPMT, the Liberation Prison Project has, since 1996, been supporting the practice of Buddhism by prisoners worldwide. Volunteer teachers offer guidance and tools to prisoners and visiting teachers go into the prisons to offer teachings and meditation.

Prisoners typically learn of the project by way of another prisoner who has become engaged with the Buddhist teachings. The Liberation Prison Project often initiates outreach after a prisoner sends a letter seeking material and support.

“Our aim isn’t to make people Buddhists; it’s to help them develop their human potential,”
-LPP's Founder, Ven. Robina Courtin

The efforts of bringing Buddhist teachings to prisoners is one I find tremendous. As with many other posts and "virtual visits," what was intended today to be a look at a dharma center in North Carolina led to knowledge of an international organization and effort to bring the dharma to those who seek it, but do not have the resources nor freedoms to simply go to a local dharma center. As can be intuited from some of my other posts here, I am interested in Buddhism on many levels, but an area that particularly draws me is practice and awareness that leads to a major transformation in lives.

In reading the bios of the volunteer teacher's on the LPP website, it's immediately clear how that transformative nature of exchanging Buddhist teachings relates to both the teachers and the prisoners experiences. Andre Smith's (a North Carolina based LPP teacher) story is directly reflective of this. You can read it here. In essence, the idea of any individual who has lost someone dear to them to a violent crime to then turn their energy and efforts towards bringing teachings of compassion and self understanding to prisoners is tremendous. Many prisoners are stigmatized due to their own record of crime, but while in prison many do have the capacity to transform their thinking and their lives. It may be difficult, and at times even inappropriate, to view prisoners as victims, but in a sense it is a victimization of the self. The potential of suffering that human's are capable of creating for themselves and others can reach disastrous proportions.

Efforts such as the Liberation Prison Projects bring the teachings of the dharma to a very particular place of need, even more so as prisoners are themselves seeking it out.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Bodhisattvic Struggle

May I be a guard for all those who are protector-less,
A guide for those who journey on the road,
For those who wish to go across the water,
May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge.

For all those ailing in the world,
Until their every sickness has been healed,
May I myself become for them
The doctor, nurse, the medicine itself.

~ An Excerpt from Shantideva's Bodhisattva Vows
Photo: Rolf Konow/Lions Gate Films

I'm going to do something a bit different with today's post. The card I pulled from the wooden bowl was 'Colorado,' a state I've been excited to make both virtual treks and in-person visits to. I hesitate to say that dharma history is more rich in one place over another, but the facts are that this Rocky Mountain state is a host to numerous dharma centers of multiple lineages and practices. The 70's saw a vital rooting of Tibetan Buddhist practices in this state and my guess is that Colorado is a rather important node in the historical spectrum of the Vajrayana's transmission through North America.

But instead of focusing on any one particular dharma center today, my mind immediately went to the film Dogville when I saw Colorado on that card.

I first saw Dogville at a cinema in downtown Tromsø several years ago. As interesting as it was to spend a few months in this Northern Norwegian hub, I was alone, far from family and was occasionally feeling some of the affects of solitude induced melancholy. The film struck a chord not only in it's minimalistic portrayal of a mountainous, frontier town and the urge to romanticize life there to some degree, but also in that it struck me immediately as a bit of a bodhisattvic tale. I'm not sure bodhisattvic is an actual word, but I like it, as indicative of the bodhisattva.

Some may balk at the linking of the bodhisattva to any of the characters in this film. The notion of 'struggle' fitting with the idea of the bodhisattva may also be unappreciated by some.

A bodhisattva is a being who, simply put, seeks enlightenment for all creatures as well as a cessation of suffering. There is a notion of sacrifice and "delaying" enlightenment on this path, in order to contribute to efforts of ceasing suffering for all creatures. Such a decision is propelled, ultimately, by compassion. The Bodhisattva's Vow is a central point in Mahayana and Vajrayana practice.

My own mundane interpretation of the Bodhisattva ideal is that it is a tremendous path in that one is essentially committing to remain in samsara (the cycle of birth and death), and regularly be confronted with all the joys, pains and experiences that such a cycle entails.

Dogville's plot tracks the journey of a young woman, Grace, who seeks to take literal refuge in a small mountain town in Colorado. The plot also follows the alert and concerned philosophical meanderings of a young male resident of the town, Tom, who essentially serves as her benefactor. He campaigns on her behalf to the other town residents to let her hide out in their town. She is clearly in some kind of trouble.

Questions arise from the town's residents, many in the vein of 'Why should we be so generous' and 'What do we risk in permitting her to stay.' Tom is intent on convincing the town's residents that Grace should be permitted to stay, that it is the town's moral duty, that it is the right thing to do.

Alas, the consensus is to permit Grace to stay, hinging on her ability to prove herself as a "good person" over the course of a couple of weeks. In those couple of weeks, Grace struggles to find some purpose and place in daily living in the community. Like a tiny seed struggling to take root in an occasionally hostile environment, Grace pushes and persists with the will to simply survive. She is initially met with stubborn and questionable resistance in all corners of the community when she offers to lend a helping hand.

Grace, as can be intuited, is from another type of life- a bigger city or a bigger town. She arrived beat down, desperate, more than willing to do what the townsfolk said in order to have a safe haven. As the town warmed to her and began showing it's own friendly and compassionate nature, we can see Grace falling into a sort of reverie of perceiving this place and it's inhabitants as living a 'good and simple life,' as being 'good and simple people.' And herein lies her dangerous assumption that later leads to the film's volatile and sad ending. Grace truly begins to believe that these folks are somehow clearer in spirit, in heart, perhaps because their remote location and simple seeming lives lack the complexities of bigger town life. She overlooks their very human potential to cause harm or suffering. She gives them carte blanche to dictate the days of her life because at some point she begins to trust in what she believes is their essentially good nature.

This Lars von Trier film is over two hours long and it really wasn't until the last half and hour that I started to become impatient. Partly because about midway through the film, the real discomfort begins. The township has realized what a 'gold mine' they have in Grace. She will do whatever they ask, with nary a complaint. A few unfortunate events are all it takes for members of the town to slowly turn towards suspicion and outright resent of Grace, for a myriad of reasons. What ensues is a basically a bondage scenario (at one point quite literally) in which Grace has become a voiceless slave to the community and their increasingly unreasonable and vicious demands.

Grace, as her name implies, suffers through it all quietly and with, well a melancholic grace. She does not fight back. She does not condemn them. The realization of human's capacity to be utterly fickle in the expression of compassion and goodwill catapults Grace into a very dark place. As a viewer, you can see that she has done nothing to warrant this. To the contrary, every interaction with the town's residents has increasingly brought forth compassionate expression from Grace, a deep and selfless desire to make their lives better, in any way she can. And often subtly at that.

I was exhausted by the time the end credits came on. I was also fairly rocked to the core by what I perceived as a sort of puzzle inherent in the decision to continuously interact out of compassion and will to transform suffering into something informative, transformative and enlightening. I refer to this as the bodhisattvic struggle. The path of the bodhisattva is a path that sees others sufferings and enlightenment to be as critical as your own. Along this path I perceive roadblocks that are part of the dialogue of psychology and communication itself.

The end of Dogville is perhaps satisfying for many viewers as they grew tired of seeing her be abused. But the manifestation of her wrathful response is perhaps but a stark lesson of skillful means in living and acting in compassion, so that resent and disillusionment do not destroy the means or disrupt the path.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

On the Vajrayana

In yesterday's posting (April 19) I started off looking at a dharma center in Missoula, Montana. This led to my question of accuracy in referring to Tibetan Buddhist dharma centers as both Mahayana and Vajrayana in practice, which then led me to getting into a bit of communication with a couple of folks at Mandala Magazine (of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition). I felt I couldn't quite proceed with this particular question unanswered. The question itself touches on the very nature of the different yanas, or vehicles, a body of knowledge I haven't even fleshed out completely in understanding yet myself. I look forward to approaching further understanding when I can engage with various Buddhist teachers, yet in this moment, the FPMT representatives provided an excellent and concise response.

They not only provided that, but also some valuable articles regarding FPMT's history as well as Buddhist teachings.

The one I refer to today was published by Carina Rumrill in a recent issue of Mandala Magazine and is a rich, informative as well as humorous explanation of the tantra, or Vajrayana. The text is an excerpt from one of Lama Yeshe's, the founder of FPMT, works.

I was completely engaged and returned to read the piece several times through, because of the directness taken in handling the discussion of how tantra can be related and manifest in "modern" society. The text was written in the later decades of the 20th century, but one can intuit how the same perception applies for considering tantra's application for the decades to come in the 2000's.

This particular issue, of how one interacts, interprets and manifests the lessons in centuries old teachings in a society that is, in many ways, radically different from when and where the teachings were originally scribed, has begun to surface with regularity as I read more on the interpretation and assimilation of Tibetan Buddhism in Western society. It is, perhaps debatably, one of the core "concerns" in the dialogue of how these teachings and philosophies can be transmitted in lands and cultures so distant and foreign from its origins.

A quote from the article:

"As time passes, everything changes – culture, people’s mentality and behavior, the environment and so forth – so the way that the teachings are presented also has to change. Today, when everything moves so fast, we can’t necessarily use methods that in earlier times took a long time to accomplish. Lord Buddha himself said that when the culture changes, delusion, mentality and behavior also change, so even the vinaya rules have to be adjusted, because in their original form they may no longer benefit. We should therefore understand that Lord Buddha taught in order to help beings according to their individual need, so naturally, as time passes, the way his teachings are presented and practiced might also have to change. Even in times of nuclear war there’d still be a skillful way to practice Dharma.

If the teachings are not suited to the times and way of life, they’re very difficult to practice. I mean, if the only way to reach enlightenment was to ride a snow lion around Amsterdam we’d really be in trouble.

However, the practice of tantra is very well suited to twentieth century life. Life today is full of pleasure but we also have a tendency to be easily confused and dissatisfied. Therefore we need a method whereby we can transform the energy of all our everyday life experiences into the path to enlightenment; we desperately need that kind of skill. So that’s what tantra offers us."

From: Vajrayana, by Lama Yeshe as published in Mandala Magazine

First, I really enjoy the snow lion analogy, it definitely draws up a humorous vision.

But what I really appreciate about this article, the line of thought I am increasingly seeing expressed in other Lama's and Buddhist teachers words, is the value in not rejecting one's society and surroundings in order to feel capable of engaging on a particular spiritual path. I have increasingly come to understand, for myself, that such rejection creates a conflict which does not often have at it's heart the potential for transformation, but rather paves the way for disappointment and dissent.

One may seek the sense of 'warriorship' at the heart of many of the teachings and even affect critically needed social change in their own societies through that spiritual motivation. To approach such efforts with compassion, with awareness of societies mutable nature as well as awareness of the benefit in seeing traditional teachings through the prism of our own modern day conditions and needs....perhaps this can also create more fertile grounds for appropriate understanding and action.

Monday, April 19, 2010

FPMT via Montana

Tashi Dhargye: The Eight Auspicious Signs - Combined Form

"Image(s) courtesy of Osel Shen Phen Ling," Bob Jacobson

This morning's visit had me returning to the expansive landscape of Montana, searching about for dharma centers there. I came across the site for Osel Shen Phen Ling and took some time to peruse the "Virtual Thangka Gallery," where you can find the above image and many more.

Yet when I started looking into the center, I had one of those moments of realizing how little I knew- how some of even the seemingly basic concepts and historical facts of Tibetan Buddhism were still a bit tangled in my mind.

If you're reading this blog, you are perhaps likely to be familiar with at least the fundamentals of the Tibetan Buddhist lexicon. I am by no means an expert. In fact these pages are a medium for me, and perhaps even some readers, to learn more. I welcome constructive critique as well as "correction" contributions. I am quite clearly basing much of what I write about various centers from what I read on the web and while I hope it is accurate at least for the moment, things change.

Osel Shen Phen Ling in Missoula, Montana follows in the tradition of the Gelug-pa lineage and is an affiliated center of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT). As I learned these bits of information about Osel Shen Phen Ling, I realized my own confusion about the relationships between the traditions and lineages. Osel Shen Phen Ling is an FPMT affiliate, yet follows a lineage, Gelug, that I had been under the impression of as being "Vajrayana" related. Questions arose:

Is Mahayana generally regarded as an umbrella over the Vajrayana tradition?

Are Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu and Gelug all lineages that can be seen either as Vajrayana or Mahayana?

The three traditionally regarded 'Yanas,' Sanskrit for Vehicle or Path, in Buddhism are: the Hinayana, Mahayana and the Vajrayana. I have entitled my own online 'project' here 'The United States of Vajrayana,' as my virtual trekking to various dharma centers and their histories is USA focused and I previously considered Tibetan Buddhism to be Vajrayanic at heart.

Osel Shen Phen Ling is affiliated with The Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, which is affiliated to an abundance of centers worldwide as well as involved in numerous charitable projects across the planet. FPMT was founded by Ven. Lama Thubten Yeshe and is currently spiritually directed by Ven. Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche. The list of FPMT's activities is tremendous.

With my unresolved questions, I decided to call FPMT directly and ended up on the phone with Carina Rumrill, editor of FPMT's Mandala Magazine, in what led to a very insightful and helpful discussion. I will be communicating a bit more on this route and look forward to sharing whatever I learn. Early on in this project of virtually exploring different dharma centers and organizations nationwide, it is immediately and pretty amazingly clear how linked the histories of many projects and centers are.

FPMT is headquartered in Portland, so on future virtual treks (or actual revisitations of the Pacific Northwest) I know I will enjoy reading up on the history of this dynamic organization.

Update: Within the scope of a few emails and morning hours, I receive a concise and direct explanation from another FPMT individual (thanks Michael J.), confirming Tibetan Buddhist Centers as Mahayana and Vajrayana in practice and nature. Vajrayana comes under the scope and practice of Mahayana, so Vajrayana practitioners are also Mahayana practitioners, though not always the other way around.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Personal Reform & Faith

The start of this blog has led to my return of reading Buddhist discussions, teachings and various aspects of Tibetan Buddhist history. It is clear to me now that this will be a lifelong track of interest that lends to increasingly new forms of engagement in my personal life as well as in society.

It is partly, but not entirely, a pursuit of the mind. I am a student at heart. I love learning. But the heart of course is human. A basic reality of many religious teachings is the focus on the human condition. Buddhism, in particular, has been widely noted in popular conception as well as serious religious discourse, as a being a faith, a philosophy, that deals quite literally in the realm of human psychology.

My use of the word 'reform' in this post's heading brings to mind criticisms I have read in some places of the use of religion as a 'fad' of self improvement. Certainly, in our religiously pluralistic society, individuals don't always commit to a specific path of practice but take an exploratory route. I certainly wouldn't want to be judged if I decided to visit a church or temple a few times for inspiration or simply out of curiosity.

The idea of reform, is for me, integral to the adherence of faith and religious philosophies. Individuals come to various faiths with all sorts of histories. Personal reform, for me, indicates not only a deep and continuous self examination, an increasing understanding of how one needlessly perpetuates suffering in their own life, but also continuing to constructively engage with the world through one's daily acts and profession.

When I make these virtual visits to various dharma centers, I see the list of teachings offered at many sites, including:
  • teachings on anger and other emotional states
  • teachings on death and impermanence
  • teachings on attachment
  • teachings on compassion
This, of course, in addition to scores of other teachings about the various paths within the Vajrayana, histories of teachers and lineages and more advanced teachings for those who have committed to a path or taken vows.

I find myself increasingly interested in how the dharma enters and is integrated in people's lives. Being in a military community, I am now propelled to find out about service members who adhere to Tibetan Buddhist teachings, or simply who have an interest in it that they intend to cultivate, and how their adherence or interest informs even their profession.

These particular questions have been bubbling up increasingly in the past few days. This morning I turned to read an article that quickly delved right to the heart of some of my 'questions.'

Thich Nhat Hanh's The Bodhisattva at Work: Skillful Means in Any Path is an article I will certainly be referencing at a later date. But to introduce some of the thoughts here, Hanh immediately delves into the skillful means of a bodhisattva which he then leads into an incredibly grounded and relevant discussion of the possibility of the bodhisattva to manifest in many forms, regardless of one's path in life. He references the reality of prisoners, police officers, even gang members being capable of incorporating the role of the bodhisattva into their life, effectively transforming communication with others around them and perhaps even conditions.

I am so moved by this article and the ideas proposed in it because I have, for the past several days, been turning over in my mind a way in which to approach and write about concepts of non-violence in Tibetan Buddhist teachings, the implications and meaning of wrathful symbolism in Tibetan Buddhist art and how teachings of the Vajrayana can help to inform how we engage and respond to shifting acts and nodes of violence in the world.

For now, I am going to sign off....but more of this to come.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Sand Mandala in Birmingham

I had a difficult time posting yesterday after seeing the news and receiving messages regarding the 6.9 quake on the China/Tibet border. Several hundred have died and thousands reported injured. Scores of buildings, including houses, schools and monasteries, have collapsed or been extremely damaged. It wasn't that news of the quake necessarily affected me on a different level than news of any other quake or community calamity would. But it was another stark reminder of the fragility of lives and our place in the world.

On a personal note, I spent my childhood in southern Florida, no stranger to hurricanes. Several of my later adolescent years were spent in Southern California, accustomed to earthquake drills and the occasional deep Earth rumble in the night, propelling me out of bed to the door frame. My parents later decided to move from one of the most earthquake prone region in the States to the most active volcano region in the States. The reality of potential natural "disasters" has always been in my awareness in these places I lived. While some locations on Earth are simply more geographically hazardous than others, the basic truth is that none of us is immune to things changing drastically in a moment of time.

There is no state I call my "home state," but the state in which I am currently at home is Alabama. I am present in Southern Alabama where I'm guessing tornado warnings are not so infrequent and we experienced our first warning recently. It barely grazed a nearby region but I hovered by the window wondering if I would witness the havoc this phenomenon could wreak.

Today's virtual visit was to the website of a center about 3 hours north of my current location and may likely be the next dharma center I visit in person.

The Losel Maitri Tibetan Buddhist Center in Birmingham Alabama has been spiritually directed by Ven. Tenzin Deshek since 2002. Lama Deshek, who was born in Tibet and studied at Namgyal Monastery in India, has several times shown the spiritual artistry and skill in creating the sand mandala. The following photos are from the Ten Days of Tibet, 2006 photo album on the Losel Maitri website, showing Ven. Tenzin Deshek creating a sand mandala at the McWane Center in downtown Birmingham.

Source: Losel Maitri

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Prayer Wheel in Sun Valley

I have yet to spin a prayer wheel, but look forward to the day.

This morning's post takes us on a virtual trek to Sun Valley Idaho and more specifically to Sawtooth Botanical Garden, location of this prayer wheel.

The artistry of these wheels is stunning. In September of 2005, H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama visited the Garden to bless this prayer wheel, which was a gift to the Sun Valley and greater Idaho community as well as commemorative to the Dalai Lama's "Healing Address" for the events of 9/11. The Prayer Wheel weighs 800 pounds (!) and was designed and handmade by artisans in Dharmsala, India. The pagoda it sits in is hand crafted of Douglas Fir and a creek flowing underneath spins the wheel in the warmer months. The garden was designed by Martin Mosko, a landscape architect and ordained Zen Buddhist monk. It is apparently also the largest Tibetan Buddhist prayer wheel on the continent.

Just beautiful.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center in New Jersey

Dharmachakra and flanking Deer at Labsum Shedrub Ling

First, I would like to just express how much I like the website for the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center. The intro page is immediately easy on the eyes with red minimalist text on a white canvas, and the traditional Dharmachakra ("wheel of the law") flanked by two deer on the left is subtle yet strong. "Virtual" representations are increasingly built to reflect a center's totality, as many visitors may link to centers by way of retreats and visits. Like any other organization in this digital age, websites are increasingly seen as a particularly important portal for a group. For dharma centers, I personally do find it thrilling to come across a website that includes a history of the center (so I don't have to rely on 2nd or 3rd hand sources) and a photo gallery of the grounds, if applicable.

The Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center (TBLC), Labsum Shedrub Ling, was formerly the Lamaist Buddhist Monastery of America, the first dharma center in the West. The Lamaist Buddhist Monastery was founded in 1958, so there is a fact to give some sense of how fresh these communities and practices really are on the continent. The Monastery was founded by Geshe Wangyal, a Kalmyk Mongolian immigrant, and now, in its' incarnation as the TBLC, run by Joshua and Diana Cutler, both of whom became his students in the early seventies and went on to learn and work with Geshe Wangyal for many years.

The center is set on several woodsy acres in Washington, NJ. The history of building for the center is interesting, highlights of which include:

1968: Retreat House is built. Geshe Wangyal is instrumental in this and future facility expansions.
1975: Schoolhouse is built; Geshe Wangyal's instructs, collaborates and constructs with the students.
1979: Geshe Wangyal sells the monastery in Howell, relocating the local Tibetan monastic community to a newly purchased building in New Brunswick, NJ
1983: Geshe Wangyal passes this year but some months before doing so, offers the New Brunswick building to H.H. the Dalai Lama/The Tibet Fund & arranges for the monks to take up residence at the Washington center. He also laid out ideas to the Cutlers, longtime students, for a temple construction on the Washington grounds.
1984: Temple completed and consecrated by H.H. the Dalai Lama

Stupa on grounds of TBLC
Dedicated to female Buddha Tara & containing Geshe Wangyal's ashes

Because of the history of the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center, it's religious and cultural community is a dynamic fusion whose energies also lend to the longevity of this center. In reflecting on the several visits of the Dalai Lama to TBLC, the website notes that:
"On all of these visits except for 1990, His Holiness gave discourses on Buddha's teachings to large assemblies of Americans, Kalmyk-Americans, and Tibetan-Americans. In 1998, almost 5,500 people assembled on TBLC property to hear His Holiness speak."

TBLC is a non sectarian center whose focus is providing instruction and teaching in the basics of Buddhism. The Center sponsors Tibetan monks to visit for brief stays to instruct. Part of the really interesting thing that looking into this center unveils is the intention that Geshe Wangyal had to encourage his Western students to learn the many facets of Tibetan Buddhism and to be sincere in their practice, but not necessarily to adopt what might be intrinsic to such practice in Tibet, such as monastic vows. In this sense, like other teachers who would appear shortly after Geshe Wangyal on the North American scene, the understanding was that for Americans to truly be able to interpret the teaching, a major and intense cultural re-adaptation should not be the focus relative to certain issues. Gehse Wangyal did encourage his students to learn Tibetan and thus also commit to the growing community of needed translators. In this sense, the evolution of the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center is very much grounded in the academic component that is often part and parcel of the religious and spiritual path and community.

*Source for general historic notes and dates: TBLC history page