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

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