What is a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery ?

In his speech at the deer park of Sarnath, known as the first turn of the Dharma Wheel,
the Buddha expressed the principles of the Four Noble Truths: suffering, the origin of suffering, the extinction of suffering, and the path that leads to the extinction of suffering. Underlying suffering is the attachment to an illusory conception of the self and worldly phenomena. Only those who achieve understanding of the impermanent nature of things and detachment from them will be able to free themselves from the cycle of reincarnations, Samsara, and to attain spiritual liberation, Nirvana. Renunciation is considered fundamental for progress to be made along this arduous path and monastic life is considered the best means to achieve it. The monastic community forms the third of the Three Jewels of Buddhism - Buddha (the master himself), Dharma (the Doctrine) and Sangha (the Community) - the Three Jewels in which whoever wishes to embrace Buddhism retreats.

The main purpose of a Buddhist monastery is to provide intensive mind training to the monks and nuns who live there, and to the wider Sangha who visit. The systems of mind training used in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries of the Kagyu tradition, can be traced backwards in history to the founders of the tradition. The lineages of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism derive primarily from two sources: Marpa Chokyi Lodoe (1012–1099) and Khyungpo Nyaljor (978–1079). Marpa received the lineage of tantric teachings called the Four Commissioned Lineages —concerning the Illusory Body and Consciousness Transference, Dreams, Clear Light, and Inner Heat directly from Naropa (1016–1100), who had been given them by his teacher Tilopa (988–1069). Marpa brought these lineages to Tibet, passing them onto his foremost disciple Milarepa (1040–1123), who was given responsibility for his meditation lineage, and to others such as Ngog Choku Dorjey, Tsurton Wangey and Meton Chenpo, who became holders of Marpa’s teaching lineage. This is how the dual systems of philosophical training and the meditation training are found established in Kagyu monasteries.

The new Thrangu monastery will be based on a traditional model. The training of monks in traditional Kagyu monasteries consists mainly of the study of the Perfection of Wisdom, Madhyamika, Valid Cognition, Discipline and Phenomenology. While there are many sub-schools within the Kagyu lineage, the fundamental principles of their doctrine are rooted in Mahamudra and the Six Yogas of Naropa. The teachings of Mahamudra are aimed at a direct understanding of the real nature of the mind. The approach to Mahamudra, which differs slightly within each Kagyu school, generally follows through the stages of foundation, path and fruit. Tantric practices unique to Kagyu tradition are the Six Yogas of Naropa, Cakrasambhava and Mahakala. In the context of tantric practice, the application of Mahamudra becomes much more profound and sophisticated. These methods of mind training will be taught by qualified and authentic khenpos and lamas, trained in Rinpoche’s monasteries in Kathmandu and India. Rinpoche himself is a recognized master of Mahamudra meditation.

As well as the study of pure philosophy and meditation, the Sangha will also be taught a variety of traditional arts, Tibetan language, history and medecine. Diverse forms of healing arts and techniques, including Chöd puja, will be imparted. The exclusively Tibetan art of Thanka painting, and Tibetan music, will be practiced and studied. The cham, the holy dance, is one of the most popular religious displays in Tibetan monasteries. Monks masked as gods recreate episodes and variants of the ancient theme of the struggle between good and evil. Sacred dancing is another example of an integral aspect of monastic culture to be included. The traditional way of advancement in philosophical understanding is the debate. The energetic debating style, punctuated by the stamping of feet and clapping of hands to emphasise points of argument derived from textual sources, will also be a feature.

A monastery is a type of nearly self-sufficient community in which all the members depend on their own and eachother’s participation in the variety of work available, in order to keep the whole going. Life in the monastery will give each member of the Sangha the opportunity to discover their place in it’s structure, whether scholarly, contemplative, or administrative. A person may be appointed as secretary or treasurer for a few years, try their hand as librarian, take a turn for a year as cook, preparing food and tea, or spend time as the chanting master, discipline master, or shrine master. The monks in the monastery will learn ritual and prayer, and be called upon to perform various pujas and prayers for benefactors and the wider community, ultimately to
benefit all life. Those who show the capacity to learn will be able to enroll in the Shedra (monastic college) where they can study some of the disciplines mentioned above. Ultimately the most able of the Sangha will be eligible to undertake the traditional three-year retreat in order to become lamas. The retreatants contemplate and master, among other things, the Four Ordinary Foundations, Prostrations, Chakrasamvara and the Six Yogas of Naropa.

One of the ultimate events that we would like to host at the monastery, would be a visit by the head of the Kagyu lineage, His Holiness the Karmapa. This would be a very apt occasion, as Thrangu Rinpoche is the personal tutor to His Holiness. It would also be a very fine way of securing the presence of the Karmapa in the West.