Saturday, May 29, 2010

Nyingma Roots in the Golden State

One of the oldest, if not the oldest, Tibetan Buddhist centers in California is the Tibetan Nyingma Meditation Center (Tibetan Nyingma Institute), founded in Berkeley in the 1970's.

The Nyingma Institute's home grounds span, among other spaces, two former Greek Chapter houses, one Neo-Georgian (originally a Delta house), constructed in 1927 and the other a Classical Revival building (originally a Psi Upsilon House), built in 1912. The Nyingma Institute first occupied the structures in 1971 and 1973, respectively. Like several other center's I've posted on, the center's history incorporates a story of occupying heritage rich structures and contributing further to them.

With such histories, there is usually a force linked to an individual that can be found. In this story, it is Lama Tarthang Tulku. Tulku, who immigrated to the States in the first wave of Tibetan exiles in the 60's, is the founder of the Nyingma Institute as well as Odiyan Monastery, further up the coast and a sister organization to the Nyingma Buddhist Institute, both centers in the global network of Nyingma. Dharma Publishing, one of the foremost global publishers of Tibetan Buddhist texts, was also founded by Tulku and is one of the many projects under his tutelage.

The Nyingma Institute itself offers several fields of study, including (to name only a few of the many lines of study) Nyingma psychology, meditation, Tibetan language and art. Volunteer opportunities are an integral part of the center's organization and continuing education courses are also offered, for example, for lawyers, therapists and social workers.

The Nyingma Institute is a truly historic example of a dharma center that integrates vigorous study, rooted in both religious, spiritual and community oriented practical perspectives as well as draws together practitioners for traditional Vajrayana practices and study.

The Dharma as the trunk.....

Anyone interested in how spiritual centers might serve as models for small community living, particularly those centered in the arts, would probably find interest in numerous examples of dharma centers. Like the very basic analogy of a tree, these center's main purpose, the trunk, is the practice of the dharma, while their activities branch and flower into numerous other engaging activities that allow the dharma to be further cultivated in earthly and community works.

Tsogyelgar Dharma Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan is one such example. Extensive garden work, art projects, a poetry program in the making....a historic preservation program in the works in the form of the rehabbing of a barn (a beautiful red structure that can be seen on Tsogyelgar's main page), a 35 foot tall stupa constructed on the grounds (and a smaller one in the works) and a stunning and extensive Tantric Buddhist mural.

Constructed in 1998, the Dorje Trollo Stupa at Tsogyelgar is filled with many sacred and precious items including 500 sacred texts of Tibetan yoga.

"The stupa is constructed according to subtle ritual that empowers its form and structure."
Source for images: flickr, Tsogyelgar

I've been chewing on ideas to write about relating to sangha (common term for Buddhist community or association) and the practical spirit cultivated in sanghas which can be seen as an exemplary model for communities of all types. More to come on the Dharma and the Sangha, stay tuned.....

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Universality of Primary Hues

One of the first things that captured me about the Tibetan Buddhist design tradition was the color scheme. It originally struck me, and still does, as elementary. Elementary in that best sense of the word, straightforward and universal.

If you have ever seen a Tibetan prayer flag rippling in the wind, you should recall the bright spread of primary colors. The same scheme is integrated in Tibetan Buddhist temple and building design worldwide, both exteriorly (when possible) and interiorly.

White relates to the element of Space/all encompassing space/buddha

Green relates to the element of Wind/all encompassing wisdom/karma

Red relates to the element of Fire/discriminating awareness wisdom/padma

Blue relates to the element of Water/mirror like wisdom/vajra

Yellow relates to the element of Earth/wisdom of equanimity/ratna

The above photo of Kagyu Shenpen Tharchin in Richmond, Virginia is, in my opinion, a quite humble and pretty example of a small sangha's ceremonial and practice space, with a prominent interior use of the yellow and red hues. Why wood floors seem to be always be most fitting, atmospherically, aesthetically and even, religiously, in spiritual centers is a question that seems simple to me but which I haven't got the answer to yet.

Established in 1993, the center is, to date, the only Tibetan Buddhist centre in Richmond, Virginia. The center is part of Ekoji Buddhist Sangha which is host to other sanghas of Buddhist tradition: a Vipassana group, a Zen group and a Pure Land Group. This truly makes Ekoji a multi-dimensional center, to serve as host to different Buddhist traditions as well as be encouragingly open door to those who do not claim a lineage, tradition or faith.

The Tibetan Buddhist sangha at Ekoji, Kagyu Shenpen Tharchin, was established through the efforts of Lama Norlha, the founder of Kagyu Thubten Chöling Monastery in upstate New York. The story of many Tibetan Buddhist leaders journeys, particularly in the latter half of the 20th century, is layered with several different geographies and, of course, the story of cultures adapting to religious tradition, or perhaps, more critically, vice versa. Diamond Vehicle is a film in the works about Lama Norlha, that appears to have captured all of this, along with the political backdrop that has served as the catalyst for the perhaps, unexpected, yet completely global reading and interest in the Vajrayana.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Buddhaful in Boston

"We are visitors on this planet. We are here for ninety or one hundred years at the very most. During that period, we must try to do something good, something useful with our lives. If you contribute to other people's happiness, you will find the true goal, the true meaning of life."

-H.H. The 14th Dalai Lama, as seen quoted on the Buddhaful Kids website

All sorts of activity can be a path for a person to stay connected with the heart of their spiritual practice. Praying, studying, reading, writing, artwork, meditation, group discussions and so much more.

I have dedicated this space online here, this blog, largely to exploring Tibetan Buddhist centers, for now sticking to exploration within the U.S.A. But "dharma space," I know extends far beyond a stupa or a monastic structure that incorporates traditional Buddhist elements. Dharma space is found in the hearts and minds, the activities and daily schedules of scores of individuals worldwide. It is intent and awareness. It is also boundless. There is no end to which this space can be cultivated, within us and without.

I recently started working at a child development center, spending the majority of my hours with 3 and 4 year olds. This age group delights me endlessly. The candor, the energy, the imagination, the desire to help and participate and learn- I love it all.

But as anyone who has spent a good deal of time around this age group (or can simply imagine the dynamics), there comes a point where things can get frazzled. By the ending of the day, many children are on their 2nd, or 3rd wind (often dependent on how naptime went!) and caregivers can also show signs of, despite loving these kids, being winded.

I've always loved stretching and yoga and quickly found it natural to simply round up everyone by the 4 o'clock hour and do some of this. The Classical Child Cd goes into the cd player, the kids find their "space" and we proceed to do a series of exercises and some deep breathing. I was truly delighted by their response as well as other staff's appreciation to take part and also lead the session.

And while yoga sessions by no means need to have a spiritual component, there is a golden nugget of wisdom in the saying "Your body is a temple." The transformation of the entire groups energy calms and centers. The kids, funny enough, particularly seem to love the prayer pose and the "Ommmmm" vocalization.

So, I was also truly delighted today to, during my virtual trekking to Massachusetts, come across Buddhaful Kids Yoga with Mary Kaye and read about Mary Kaye's pursuit of true passion and health, which is shared with people of all ages through her classes and books. Elsewhere in the States, child's yoga classes and centers abound and also share their knowledge in the many ways this activity is a great benefit.

Childlight Yoga makes mention of one of these:

"While yoga is becoming wildly popular with kids everywhere, one significant benefit often overlooked by parents and educators is the aspect of speech development. ChildLight "Yoga," "yogurt," or "woga" classes can help advance a young child's speech development through slow, repetitive verbal instructions, songs and the imitation of simple sounds found in nature."

Ommmmmm on!

Sunday, May 16, 2010


The East Coast appears to be the hot spot for lineages to set up their North American seats. There's Namgyal Monastery in Ithaca, NY, seat of the Dalai Lama; Karma Triyana Dharmachakra in Woodstock, NY, seat of the head of the Karma Kagyu school, the Gyalwa Karmapa; Tsechen Kunchab Ling in Walden, NY, seat of the Sakya Trizin. Going a bit further south, but staying in the East, we come upon another -Lotus Garden, tucked into the Shenandoah Valley in Stanley, Virginia, the North American seat for Mindrolling International. Mindrolling follows the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism.

Lotus Garden was founded in 2003 by Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche who was born into the Mindrolling linage. The only time I have referenced Mindrolling was in the Six Mother Monasteries of Nyingma. Mindrolling Monastery was established in Tibet in the 1600's along with a family lineage. Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche descends from this lineage, daughter to the 11th Mindrolling throne holder, the late Trichen Jurme Kunzang Wangyal.

Over at The Chronicle Project, some great audio of Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche speaking on a variety of issues is featured in A conversation with Her Eminence Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche. I listened and transcribed her words which followed the first question in the interview. You can click on the link in the article title and listen while you read. The following are Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche's thoughts and words regarding the cultural implications of Vajrayana Buddhism in the West:

"This is a very crucial topic....because we just don't say it that Buddhism is spreading in the West because of any other simpler or more mundane reasons other than the fact that it has come to the point where the West must realize what is happening. So, it's not a question of just the flourshing of the Dharma into a certain region or country of the world, but karmically, sentient beings karma and the karma of the world, is going through a transition where the container that is being formed in which the future Dharma has to be held is fast pointing to the Western directions. So people feel very happy when they hear the words 'The Dharma is coming to the West' or 'The Westernization of Buddhism,' it's a fairly popular thing to say these days. But I don't think it often brings about an awareness in the minds of people of a sense of responsibility that comes with it, that which must be realized by the teachers as not being only speaking in English or translating certain things, but it is about the continuity of the stream of the essence of Dharma that must begin to unfold in a country in the most pure and authentic ways, which requires much more dedication, much more understanding of what it means when the Dharma is coming to the West from the teachers . Teachers have to realize that responsibility. Students have to realize that it's not just a simple thing to be happy about- 'Oh, Dharma is coming to the West, how nice, how good.' And that that expression of your happiness and joyfulness is not the only thing that is sufficient at this point. They have to understand that you are now building something of which you have the courage to hold, again, in the most pure and authentic ways. So this calls in for the need for both teachers and students of this and the next generation to understand the profoundness and the depth of what it actually means when we talk about Westernization of Buddhism. It's about having received it in its most authentic way and then continuation of it in a very changed world, but upholding the values, the principles, the profoundness, the truth and the purity in an unbroken way, in an unbroken lineage."

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Vajrayana in Salt Lake City

Stairs at Urgyen Samten Ling Gonpa during Lotus Festival, 2006
Source: flickr, Sarah Ause, Deseret Morning News

Urgyen Samten Ling, following the Nyingma school, was established in 1994 in Salt Lake City, Utah. As with many other centers nationwide and globally, the efforts to establish Urgyen Samten Ling were spearheaded by local practitioners.

As with stories of other dharma centers, tucked into the story and home of Urgyen Samten Ling are tales of earlier American history, in this case, including stories of other religious traditions. The building became a National Historic Register listing in December of 1978 and is also on the state's historic registry. Listed as "5th Ward Meeting House" the building was built in 1910 and originally served as a meetinghouse for the Latter Day Saints. The article A spiritual refuge: Tibetan Buddhist temple will be haven for worshippers provides a great historical summary, highlighting the irony in that the building first served a group that had originally come to this state to escape religious persecution (and now is practically synonymous with the name Utah!) and also notes that prior to Urgyen Samten Ling taking over the building, it served as, among other things, a Gothic dance club. The many dimensions to the space of one single building...

Source: flickr, albill

Urgyen Samten Ling's website references the reoccurring and vital theme of practice that is relevant to the current day. As the center's website explains, their namesake translates to "Guru Rinpoche's Place of Meditation." Guru Rinpoche is also known as Padmasambhava, whose prophecies included that the Vajrayana path, the most direct, "would be uniquely appropriate for this modern era."

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Karmê Chöling

Pictured are the 7th Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche & the Karmapa at Karmê Chöling in 1980

What was Tail of the Tiger in the seventies is now the beautiful and spacious Karmê Chöling in Barnet, Vermont. One of the first Buddhist retreat centers in North America, Tail of the Tiger figures in many retellings of Tibetan Buddhism's early days of growing practice on the North American continent.

Some aspect of my mind just softly explodes when I first focus in on a particular state or region and then hone in on a particular center. I suppose it's naive that in doing so, I believe I will acquire singular focus of what I am going to write about. Having never visited most of these centers, I am left with visual impressions I find on the web as well as my own reveries about the landscapes they are set in. In the case of a center like Karmê Chöling, the history is only a few decades old- but well, so am I! And in those few decades there are so many stories to be told. One single post can hardly do justice....Not to mention that while the center is a few decades old, the teachings are several centuries in the making.

So if I appear to be perfunctory or absurdly brief when I post about a center with an obviously rich history, it's typically a case of realizing the abundance of information that exists about some centers and choosing to take care before I attempt to write in depth. In many cases, they are centers to which I will return. Karmê Chöling, formerly Tail of the Tiger, is one such center.

This place holds an important role in the historic network of Tibetan Buddhist centers in the United States and is incredibly picturesque to boot. Originally purchased by a group of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche's students in 1970, this center operated as Tail of the Tiger until 1974, when it received it's current name, Karmê Chöling.

Shambhala Day
Source: Karmê Chöling blog, February 2010

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Dharma and the Film

In the last post (May 7, 2010), I referenced the film The Little Buddha, in light of the fact that the post focused on a monastery that was featured in it. I then realized the whole arena of Buddhism and Film that I hadn't really touched on yet in this blog, except for the post on Dogville, exploring what I saw as a current of the bodhisattva ideal at work in some of it's character development.

Hollywood has done it's fair share of touching, interesting and even epic looks at Buddhist tales- clearly Scorsese's Kundun is the first thing that probably comes to mind. Yet, today I learn of an entire festival dedicated to bringing together and showcasing Buddhism on film: The International Buddhist Film Festival.

Among the films, all with a focus on some aspect of Tibetan Buddhism and which were shown for free at the Smithsonian Institution in March of this year, is the The Ceremony of the Vajra Crown, an Academy Award nominated film that was shot at Cathedral of the Woods in New Hampshire. The Ceremony of the Vajra Crown documents an empowerment ceremony conducted by the Karmapa and having been shot in 1980, is perhaps one of the earliest films documenting Tibetan Buddhist experience and ritual in North America.

Viewing the roster of the other films takes you on a global tour of successful efforts to document and share various aspects of Buddhist communities, practices and the many and diverse geographies that wind their way into the tale of the Vajrayana's global path.

Prior International Buddhist Film Festivals and various film showings were held in (to mention a few locales) Mexico City; San Francisco; New York City and Singapore. The first festival of this kind was held in Amsterdam. Program director Babeth VanLoo is quoted on the IBFF website as saying:

“What’s special about the feature films we will present is that they are not only about Tibet, but they have been made by Tibetans and/or the cast is for the most part Tibetan. After the first wave of Hollywood films using Tibetan themes, this is new.”

Indeed. In fact, not only are they cast in supporting and major roles, but have come to also serve critical roles in production.

In the rich and increasingly extensive dialogue about the 'presentation' of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, the conversation ranges from analytical, academic insights and debating to very pedestrian discussions about the ways in which symbols and aspects of this culture are transmitted and accepted on this continent. From Hollywood portrayals and other media depictions, to it's presence as a vital and growing spiritual and religious culture among Tibetans and non-Tibetans alike- the questions raised and the ensuing conversations are often quite interesting.

And there's few better ways to capture the attention of an information and media saturated society than through the dynamics of film. As our choices in media consumption seem to expand at a hurtling rate, the discussions revolving around how are awareness of a spirituality, a religion, a philosophy (whatever it may be) is both shaped and presented through a particular medium, this becomes an increasingly relevant dialogue. Being a lover of film, I for one see it as a form of both art and social engagement merged and at work.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Sakya Monastery in Seattle

Tucked into the story of Sakya Monastery in the neighborhood of Greenwood, Seattle, is also the story of adaptive reuse of a historic structure whose original purpose served an entirely different religious group. The colorful building that now houses Sakya Monastery was originally constructed in 1928 as a Presbyterian Church. Sakya Tegchen Choling center, founded in 1975 in other locales in Seattle, acquired the building in 1974 which later became the current incarnation of the center, as Sakya Monastery.

It's often interesting to see the historic cycle of spaces occupied by dharma centers. What mingles in the presence of active Tibetan Buddhist teachings in many dharma centers across North America are clear echoes of American architectural history and many other stories to be told. I am reminded of the third Tibetan Buddhist center in the US that I visited- Karma Triyana Dharmachakra in Woodstock, New York. At the time (2005) vast progress had been made on the beautiful new temple- but there also sat Meads Mountain House, which had served the Center for some years and whose rustic interiors I regret having not delved into and explored in more depth....

But staying on topic and in the realm of the Emerald City, Sakya Monastery itself has, in the past few decades, built a history of it's own. Scores of pages have been written on the relationship of media and the publicity of Tibetan Buddhism in the West and popular movies have certainly been at the forefront of this. Sakya Monastery was featured in the 1993 production Little Buddha, which tracks a fictional plot of a group of Lamas seeking the incarnation of one of their teachers which takes them to, among other places, the key location of Seattle in their search. As with other prominent films centered on a Tibetan Buddhist themes, Tibetan monks and lamas themselves were cast in critical roles.

The Pluralism Project (Diverse Buddhist Communities Make a Home in Washington), quotes a December 2003 article in The Daily:

"In 1960, drawn by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, and by the help of the UW Tibetan studies program, the only program of its type in the United States, Deshung Rinpoche, or 'Precious One' to his followers, moved his family to Seattle. Rinpoche worked with the Tibetan studies program for three years... Rinpoche’s congregation gradually outgrew a number of locations, from Ravenna to Capitol Hill to the U-District. Eventually, the large step was taken to buy the old Presbyterian church in Greenwood and convert it."

The white stupa outside the monastery is in honor of the late Ven. Dezhung Rinpoche. Dezhung Rinpoche arrived in Seattle in 1960 after forced exile from Tibet, and rooted here. Sakya Monastery is currently led by H.H. Jigdal Dagchen Sakya. It maintains the tradition of the school of Sakya, but, like many other centers, is non-sectarian in it's approach to offering a wide range of teachings from all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Zuni Mountain Stupa

Zuni Mountain Stupa

Here in southern Alabama, it's been pouring buckets all day, pools of water swarming in the roads and dark clouds swathing the sky. However, in the site of today's virtual visit, the early May temperatures are crisp, bright blue, sunny Spring days.

Grants, New Mexico is where the next trek takes us. In the Northwestern quadrant of this Southwest state, a stupa sits. A stupa with the expressed purpose of "subduing negative forces." The style of the stupa itself, Duddul Chodten, translates and is dedicated to this expressed purpose.

The act of building with the intent of a structure to interact with the matrix of spiritual and locational energies is certainly not unique to Tibetan Buddhism. I am reminded of a story I heard during my early prodding into the concepts of Feng Shui, an art and practice which is carefully considered not only in home design and layout in certain regions of the world, but also actual planning of new and prominent architecture.

I don't recall all the details, but as this particular example goes, a major office building was slated to be built in an urban area in China. One particular obstacle perceived was the positioning of the building near a hilly area that was known to be the residence of a particular dragon spirit. Constructing a many leveled office building in this particular location would, according to certain experts, obstruct the path of the dragon, thereby bringing ill energy to the levels of the building that previously was it's path of movement.

The solution: allow for a large central hole in the middle of the building to pave the dragon spirit's path. Building and layout with regards to harmony with the environment takes on an entirely new level when such notions are brought to the plan. And harmony, in this sense, implies not only ushering forth 'good energy,' but a keen awareness of the flow of local elements and a will and ability to confront and compromise with aspects of the landscape or general atmosphere that, if ignored, could prove to be disruptive.

Zuni Mountain Stupa was, as far as I can tell, not constructed with the intent to allay or pacify any local land deities in this particular region of New Mexico. Yet it is the first stupa I have read about whose specific purpose involved dispelling "negative forces." Certainly, many of the other stupas across the globe, intended to be a monument and circumambulation point for enlightenment, have as their structural and spiritual intent, the very same purpose. The act of 'enlightenment' itself involves a dissolution of delusion, negative thought and energy- all of which obstruct and dissuade one from any goals of enlightenment, regardless of spiritual persuasion.

Bhakha Tulku Rinpoche is the spiritual director for the Zuni Mountain Stupa, which was consecrated only months ago. Also known as Ösel Khandro Duwi Ling- The Gathering Place of the Dakinis, Zuni Mountain Stupa is a project in the wings of the Vairotsana Foundation, of which Bhakha Tulku Rinpoche is a founder.

Vairotsana Foundation's website states:

"We are building this stupa in the Zuni Mountains at a time when extreme negative conditions proliferate on our planet in order to help remove those obstacles and to generate the blessings of healing, peace, and enlightenment for all beings, in every direction, in every way."

In my own project of tracking these different Tibetan Buddhist architectural developments in the USA, it is clearer to me more than ever before that we all subscribe to different means of responding to current societal and planetary conditions. If you have read this far along, perhaps you as well see the importance and role that various architectures play in the human effort of confronting and resolving certain dynamics at play. Prayer is certainly among the ways. And the role of the stupa offers exactly that- active prayer space.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

In the Realm of Sedona's Red Rock

The Tara Stupa
Sedona, Arizona (built 1999)
Source: Kunzang Palyul Chöling's website

Kunzang Palyul Chöling, spiritually directed by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo, follows the Palyul lineage of the Nyingma tradition and operates a temple in Maryland and a dharma center in Sedona, Arizona. The Arizona Center is the location for the Amitabha Stupa and Peace Park, home to the Tara and the Amitabha Stupa, and is exemplary of the many types of projects driven by volunteer and sponsorship efforts and a sangha that is driven by a spiritual and socially engaged mindset.

Amitabha Stupa
Build 2004

Amitabha Park Project
Source: Kunzang Palyul Chöling's website

Among the other projects driven by the leadership of KPC and the sangha are a Prison Ministry program, founded in Maryland and a no-kill animal rescue and adoption organization in Dakini Valley, AZ- Tara's Babies Animal Welfare. Tara's Babies was formed during KPC's animal rescue efforts after Hurricane Katrina, during which they partnered up with other animal rescue organizations nationwide to rescue and relocate hundreds of animals wounded and abandoned during the hurricane. Snow Lion Newsletter's published a great and touching article on the efforts. I for one always love to see when so much time and energy is spent to include non-human animals in rescue efforts.

Evacuated animals flown to Arizona, en route to KPC's retreat and refuge