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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

Learning Buddha's golden rule

October 11, 2007

Monastery expands to feed interest in Buddhist studies
By Jennie Daley
Journal Staff, http://www.theithacajournal.com
October 8, 2007

The Namgyal Monastery on Aurora Street was originally a family home, 
and it is clear that this Tibetan family has outgrown its space.

On many occasions, all the cushions in the monastery's shrine room 
are taken, the few chairs lining the back wall are filled and the 
overflow crowd is squeezed into seats in the foyer or whatever space 
is available on the stairs.

For visitors or new initiates, ceremonies performed in Ithaca are 
usually preceded by a description, in English, of the event's 
purpose. A monk will explain what the prayers are seeking and some 
history as to why such celebrations exist.
The root of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition can be traced back to the 
first Buddha who shared his teachings in Asia during the later half 
of the fifth century, B.C. Since then many branches of the faith have 
developed. Tibetan Buddhism is based on the Vajarayana school, which 
has its roots in the Mahayana branch. Both focus on attaining 
enlightenment so that a person can help others.

Helping others is at the core of Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama 
said Buddha's teachings can be summarized in two sentences: You must 
help others. If not, you should not harm others.

To be able to help others, according to the Tibetan Buddhist 
tradition, one must cultivate compassion and kindness.

Teaching compassion
While these moral values reflect the teachings of many world 
religions, it is often noted that the lack of a supreme being, or God 
figure, in Buddhism, separates it from its peers. Buddhism is often 
seen as more of a philosophy than a religion, a position the Dalai 
Lama has commented on often in his talks.

"Some people say that, from a certain angle, Buddhism is not a 
religion but rather a science of the mind. Religion has much 
involvement with faith. Sometimes it seems that there is quite a 
distance between a way of thinking based on faith and one entirely 
based on experiment, remaining skeptical," he said. "The general 
Buddhist position is that we must always accept fact. What science 
finds to be non-existent, a Buddhist must necessarily accept to be 
non-existent, but what science does not find is a completely 
different matter. It is quite clear that there are many, many 
mysterious things."

The monks learn about such philosophies during a traditional, 13-year 
course of study. There are separate monasteries for men and women, 
and there were once rigid rules about which school would wear which 
type of robe and in what color combination. Tenzin Thutop, a Namgyal 
monk who has been based in Ithaca since 1999, said once they became 
refugees such restrictions on their clothing were loosened. One 
element that remained was the form. Thutop said the sleeve represents 
an elephant's trunk, a symbol of death. The sleeves are meant to 
remind its wearer that death is a part of life.

Training for monks at the Namgyal monastery is unique because of its 
broad focus. While the monks' studies are primarily in the Gelug, or 
Geluk, tradition, the Dalai Lama requires that they also become 
comfortable with the teachings of other branches of Tibetan Buddhism.

The monks' introduction to their training places emphasis on reason 
over faith.

"When they start learning, they learn debate. Their first three years 
of education are spent debating about colors and shapes, just things 
we see in everyday life," said Sidney Piburn, co-founder of Snow Lion 
Publishing who has spent time in the monasteries in India. "They 
don't start with what we could call religious topics but, for them, 
religion is about learning how to reason."

That philosophy was reflected in a quote from Buddha that Piburn saw 
above the entrance to a monastery in Dharmasala. "Don't accept 
something just because I say it but only through testing it and 
finding it to be true, but not out of respect for me."

"I thought, what a weird thing to have above the entrance to a 
religious institution," Piburn said, but "a lot of Buddhist ideas are 
contradictory in the first place because they have so many different 
schools. So how do you know what's true? You only know through 
examining it through yourself, and that's the criteria, something 
stands up to reason."

At a more advanced levels of study, there is a focus on reflection 
through retreats. In the Namgyal tradition there are two types of 
retreats, those for reciting mantras and those for visualization. 
These types of experiences are incorporated into a monk's training.

Additionally they learn various arts associated with their religion, 
such as painting, creating sand mandalas and creating decorative 
sculptures out of butter and sugar. Both the mandalas and the 
sculptures exemplify the Tibetan Buddhist philosophy of impermanence 
as both are created with temporary materials and with the intent of 
being dismantled.

More permanent are the prayer flags so often associated with Tibet. 
Printed with various mantras, or prayers, the flags are believed to 
carry those prayers on the wind, meaning each time the wind blows, 
their prayers are sent out again, a system that has its advantages in 
the windy mountains of Tibet.

Buddhist services
Attending a Tibetan Buddhist ceremony can be totally novel for 
Westerners, though there are some phenomenona that seem to stretch 
across faiths.

In Namgyal's current space, there is one room that serves as the 
primary sanctuary, or shrine room. In the front of the room, 
bookshelves were installed to hold the saffron-wrapped religious 
texts, as well as various images of the Buddha and Buddhist deities.

Decorative banners line the walls. There is a warmth and richness to 
the vibrant rainbow of colors that typify Tibetan holy spaces.

In front of the shelves is the altar, often decorated with flowers 
and the intricate, multi-colored sugar and butter sculptures the 
monks craft.

During religious celebrations the altar fills with an unlikely array 
of gifts: Red Bull and bouquets wrapped in cellophane, large plastic 
bottles of apple juice and fresh fruit. Often the gifts are shared 
with worshipers during or after the ceremony and the rest are stashed 
in the monastery refrigerator.

As the monks pray, those in attendance follow along, sitting on 
cushions that match the monks' maroon robes. A row of chairs in the 
back of the room accommodates those not used to sitting long on the 
floor.

Minutes after the ceremony begins, much like in any church, mosque or 
synagogue, those who arrive late squeeze in next to friends, then try 
to quietly flip through the prayer book, searching for the right 
page. Soon they've found the page and are looking for their glasses, 
the print seemingly smaller since the last time they were here.

jdaley@ithacajournal.com

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