Newsletter of the Kurukulla Center for Tibetan Buddhist Studies

Number 10, May 1997

Summer Schedule:
Visiting Teachers, Retreats With Geshe Tsulga

Geshe Michael Roach, director of Asian Classics Institute in New York, returns to Kurukulla Center July 11-13. Geshe-la will offer a five-session schedule of teachings Friday through Sunday titled, "Proof of Past and Future Lives." Participants in the weekend teachings will receive a certificate of completion from Asian Classics Institute.

In addition, Ven. Robina Courtin will be teaching at Kurukulla Center June 13-20, and August 17-24. Robina will be teaching on mind transformation, including a series of talks on the fundamentals of Buddhist psychology. A one-day retreat will be included for those with busy schedules.

Geshe Tsulga will preside over a Nyung-Nä retreat May 21-26, at Milarepa Center, Kurukulla Center's sister center in Barnet, VT. Geshe-la also will hold a Medicine Buddha Retreat July 4-6 at Milarepa Center.

Western Monks and Nuns:
Not Just a "Lifestyle Choice"

Despite the necessary changes the Dharma undergoes in new cultures, the one constant always has been the ordained Sangha, the presence of at least four monks or nuns holding the full vows of morality.

Still, Buddhist monks and nuns are not a common sight in the West--and their lack of visibility is exactly why the FPMT Sangha needs our support. The FPMT Sangha, known as the International Mahayana Institute (IMI), was begun in 1974 by Lama Yeshe. The IMI is comprised of 160 monks and nuns who work, teach, and practice around the world. The purpose of the Sangha is to generate the wisdom of emptiness through a dependence on the vows of morality. Monks and nuns are the most powerful emanation of the vinaya, the Buddha's teachings on morality, because they hold considerably more extensive morality vows than do lay practitioners.

Even though the West supports the idea of religious monasticism, Western cultures do not always create the conditions for the fully ordained Sangha to flourish. "Being a monk or nun in the West is a lot harder than in the East," said Ven. Robina Courtin, a member of the IMI. Robina said that monks and nuns in the West experience a range of difficulties. "There's not much infrastructure or support. Many monks and nuns feel like individuals just struggling to survive," she said.

"In the West, we may tend to see the presence of monks and nuns as a sentimental thing," Robina said. "You know, 'Oh, these are holy people.' But it's far more than just holy people. We have to see why the Sangha is vital--because the Dharma depends on people living the full extent of the teachings of morality. Being a monk or nun is not a question of lifestyle choice. It is a question of the Dharma existing."

Thus, the FPMT Sangha needs a strong infrastructure for monks and nuns in order to continue the presence of the Dharma and help guide all sentient beings to enlightenment as quickly as possible. "The Dharma is there because monks and nuns are holding their vows of morality," Robina said. "They are a symbol of the holding of Buddha's teachings on morality."

For more information, write Ven. Joan Nicell, IMI Secretary, Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa, 56040 Pomaia (PI), Italy. Email: iltk@sirius.pisa.it.

Contributions to help the FPMT Sangha can be made directly to the Lama Yeshe Sangha Fund, FPMT International Office, PO Box 800, Soquel, CA, 95073.


Translator Sara Mcclintock Links Geshe-La And Students Through Language

Given our vast linguistic and cultural differences, the complexities of communicating with a Tibetan lama could add still another layer of difficulty to the already challenging task of studying Dharma

Luckily, the Center has excellent translators like Sara McClintock, who, by generously donating their services to the Center, enable us to receive teachings from Geshe Tsulga.

Sara's personal and professional involvement with Buddhism started in San Francisco after her graduation from college. There, while studying Tai Chi, she encountered a few Buddhist and Hindu practitioners who stimulated her interest in both India and religion. "I decided to study these topics more formally," Sara said, "so I enrolled in Harvard Divinity School in 1987, where I began my study of Sanskrit."

Sara also took an introductory class on Indian and Tibetan Buddhism with Professor Masatoshi Nagatomi, who is a priest in the Shin Buddhist tradition. The course had a profound effect on her.

"When the professor started talking about emptiness and compassion, I was hooked," said Sara. "I decided to make Indian Buddhism the focus of my studies."

In 1989, Sara married fellow doctoral student John Dunne (who is now also a translator at the Center) in a Buddhist ceremony conducted by Professor Nagatomi. In addition to exchanging marriage vows they wrote, both of them took refuge and Bodhisattva vows. After that, Sara began to study the Tibetan language, as well as take teachings from her first Tibetan lama, Tara Rinpoche.

Sara's current studies focus on the religions of South Asia and Tibet, with a specific emphasis on Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. "I'm particularly interested in exploring the philosophical treatises that emerged in India between the second and ninth centuries--especially the concept of emptiness presented in these texts.

"I'd like to contribute to the cross-fertilization of ideas between East and West by translating some of these ancient Buddhist texts into English," said Sara.

As radical changes in Western thought push our world view closer to the Buddhist model of a fluid, ever-changing reality, Sara thinks the idea of emptiness will become increasingly relevant--both to Western philosophy and to our daily lives.

"I think when properly understood and applied, the notion of emptiness can be extremely useful for people--even if they don't become Buddhists."

When asked if it's now possible to speak of an American Buddhism, Sara commented: "I definitely feel that it is possible to speak of 'American Buddhism' already. While I don't expect that there will ever be a single form of Buddhism that'll be practiced all over America, I do think that the great diversity of Buddhism available here will encourage people to be more discriminating in choosing the kinds of practices that work best for them.

"Although the current scene might look a bit chaotic, I think that people have already begun to learn a great deal about the whole range of ways of being Buddhist. This increased knowledge prevents people from seeing Buddhism as something fixed or static, which I see as a great advantage."

Sara's sensitivity to the fluid, adaptable nature of ideas likewise informs her approach to translating.

"Of course, whenever one translates, one is translating in terms not only of language but of culture as well," Sara explained. "Luckily, though, both language and culture are pretty fluid things! So there is a lot of flexibility for the translator. Sometimes, in translating a question for Geshe-la, the translator may add in a word or two to give some context and to help Geshe-la understand the particular perspective of the questioner. It's really a lot like how we translate from Tibetan to English, only in reverse."

Sara encourages everyone who's interested in Buddhism to keep reading, listening, exploring, and meditating. "If you're inclined to study any of the classical Buddhist languages, such as Sanskrit or Tibetan, search for a teacher and make it happen. The development of American Buddhism depends upon the spread of Buddhist traditions.

"At the moment, we are short of translators," Sara adds, "both for oral and for written materials. Of course, studying language is not for everyone, nor is it at all essential to making progress on the Buddhist path. But for those who have an inclination, I would just like to urge you to follow your hearts.

Winter Teachings:
Dismantling The Wheel

During February and March, Ven. Geshe Tsulga gave two courses at Kurukulla Center: on Sundays he expounded on the twelve links of interdependent origination, while on Wednesdays, students received commentary on Togme Zangpo's 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva.

Geshe-la informed us halfway through the teachings on dependent origination that we had graduated to Buddhist "second grade." Whereas his teachings of the past year had focused primarily on how to eliminate the possibility of rebirth in the lower realms, now he said he would emphasize methods for eliminating suffering altogether and liberating ourselves from samsara. Central to this practice is understanding the twelve links of dependent origination, or the Wheel of Life.

The Wheel of Life describes how we are stuck in a cycle where we keep losing things that make us happy and getting things that cause us anguish. This Wheel is made up of the twelve links, and Geshe Tsulga showed students why our fundamental ignorance about the way things are compels us to spin this wheel over and over again, continuing to create emotions and circumstances we do not want. He showed how a proper understanding of these links in deep meditation can lead to a dismantling of this wheel, cutting ignorance at its root, and creating the causes for lasting happiness and fulfillment.

What are the practices for someone who wants to attain this sort of lasting happiness? Geshe Tsulga answered this question in his Wednesday class with the help of a famous text that concisely enumerates the main Mahayana practices. The Bodhisattva Togme Zangpo was a great Nyingma practitioner who predated Lama Tsong Khapa. The 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva is his most well known text, and has been the main practice of many great Tibetan yogis. Geshe-la went through the 40 verses of this text one by one, covering all the main points in the path to becoming a Buddha.

He began with an extensive explanation of the value and rarity of our human condition, and described the futility of trying to secure some kind of lasting happiness that is tied solely to this body and this lifetime. The value of this life, he said, is the opportunity it gives for transforming one's mind.

All appearances, Geshe-la explained, are one's own mind. In other words, they are merely established by linguistic, conceptual designation. Appearances do not exist apart from our minds. They have no intrinsic reality from their own side. Because of this understanding, Bodhisattvas see objects of attachment or aversion as confused appearances. They do not become depressed or ecstatic at the coming and going of these appearances that have come and gone in dependence on our past actions.

Geshe-la has recently been beginning every teaching with several minutes of meditation and has been emphasizing the importance of having a daily meditation practice. We appreciate his positive example as someone who continuously tries to integrate what he believes into his way of living and being.


Geshe-la Says
"Cancel Your Ticket, Get Off the Plane"

The following is from Geshe-la's teaching this winter on the Wheel of Life. In this excerpt, Geshe-la helps us understand the causes and effects of karma in terms of the interdependent links of the Wheel of Life. Translation by John Dunne.

"Let's suppose you want to go to California. What you say is, 'I'm going to get on a plane, and I'm going to go to California.' That intention is like the karma in the second link of dependent origination, which is also called projecting karma, because it is the karma that is going to project you into a new rebirth. But at that time you haven't done anything. You've only thought about it. You haven't bought any tickets. You haven't packed your bags or anything like that. The idea of going to California doesn't mean it necessarily has to happen. So, too, when you have a negative karmic potential in your mind, if you engage in a purification practice such as the Four Remedial Powers, you can prevent the karma from ever actually producing an effect--such that you won't have to take a negative rebirth.

Let's suppose, however, that you not only decide to go to California, but you actually buy a ticket. When you actually go out and buy the ticket, what that means of course is that you've moved from 'Oh, I think I should go to California' to actually having a strong enough intention to buy the ticket. That increasing of the intention is like the eighth link [on the Wheel of Life], called craving, where the karma that's going to project you into your next rebirth becomes a little bit more augmented. It's getting closer to being able to produce an effect. That's what we mean by craving. It's a stronger desire for that rebirth. But just as you can cancel the ticket-- even though you bought it, you can still cancel it--so, too, you can still engage in purification practices. You can still prevent yourself from actually having to take that particular rebirth that you have craving for.

"Now you've bought the ticket. And you actually get yourself to the airport, and you're at the ticket desk and you're getting your seat. This is where the potential of that idea 'I'm going to go to California' is getting much closer to the point of actually giving an effect. This is like appropriation [the ninth link], where you now have a mental state where the mind is intent upon taking rebirth. Even at this time, when the potential has become even stronger, a very great yogi or practitioner can still prevent that potential from actually occurring. Likewise, one can do so through very great meritorious acts, such as gathering the Sangha together and making great offerings, and so on. Of course, you might have to take a little penalty on your ticket if you cancel it at that late a date. But still you can cancel it.

"It is quite rare for someone to have their bags all packed and get to the counter and suddenly say, 'I'm not going,' and to cancel their ticket. It's equally rare for a person to get to the point where that potential which is leading to the next rebirth has become so strong that it's at the stage of appropriation--it's rare for them to be able to actually prevent that karma from producing its ripening effect, which would be that next rebirth after death.

"This appropriation stage happens when the person is already start ing to die...You've started to go through some of the stages of dissolution and death. Now when you get on the plane, and they close the door and lock the hatch, that's it. You're going... This is what we call existence, the tenth link. Existence is that state like being on the plane and the hatch has been closed--now you can't cancel your ticket, that's it. You can't at this point avoid taking on whatever aggregates you're going to take on in the next rebirth, whether they're good or bad. That's it. The decision is made. It's definite. Then being on the plane and flying is like being in the bardo, the intermediate state, where you've actually died. Just before you died, you have the link of existence. That potential is really going to give its effect now. When you're in the bardo, it [existence] is directing you toward your next rebirth. So, you're on the plane and you're going. When you open the hatch of the plane and you get out of the plane, that's like being conceived. And that's what we mean by birth."

Rejoicing In Merit

We would like to thank everyone who helped Kurukulla Center thrive this past winter. First, our biggest thanks goes to Geshe-la for his illuminating teachings on the 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva and The Wheel of Life, and for bestowing the Medicine Buddha initiation. Geshe-la's generosity and kindness sustains the Center. Special thanks also to Sara McClintock and John Dunne for their excellent translations.

Thank you, Angela Suescún-Hoffman, for your continued work for the Monks' Fund, the network of donations that supports Geshe-la's students in India. Please visit our new web site (http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Forum/4131) devoted to the support of FPMT monks and nuns at Sera Je Monastery and Khachoe Ghakyil Nunnery. Thanks to Eric Hoffman for maintaining the Kurukulla Center web page.

Thanks to Tim McNeil and an anonymous donor for sponsoring Geshe Tsulga's trip to attend His Holiness the Dalai Lama's June, 1997, teachings in Los Angeles. Thanks to all who helped with the newsletter, especially Ellen Persio, Shelly Hubman, Suzanne Persyn, and David Strom.

Special thanks to Suzanne Persyn, Kurukulla Center Director, for her hard work organizing Kurukulla Center events, and for attending to the countless details necessary to keep the Center active. Thanks especially to Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Kurukulla Center Spiritual Director, and to the help we receive from other FPMT centers worldwide. Thanks for the time and energy of everyone who helps with Kurukulla Center teachings and events. Let's remember to rejoice in each other's merit.


Kurukulla Center Announces New Membership Options

Kurukulla Center is an all-volunteer organization. We rely completely on the donations and contributions of members. All members of Kurukulla Center deserve thanks for supporting the Center since its inception in 1990. The contributions of members ensure the presence of the Dharma for Boston-area residents--thus, our contributions become virtuous acts benefiting ourselves and all sentient beings.

A new series of membership options has been announced. These membership options will go into effect June 1, 1997. The three membership categories are: Friend of Kurukulla Center; Regular Membership/Student Membership; Sustaining Membership. All categories involve monthly or annual donations. Annual memberships can be paid bi-annually. Eventually, we would like to move to a quarterly payment system, to ease administrative burdens and to aid future planning initiatives.

With a donation of $100 per year, you can become a Friend of Kurukulla Center. At this basic level of support, you can attend all Center events at a 20% discount; you will receive an FPMT membership card, offering 20% discount at other FPMT Centers; you will receive Mandala, the magazine of the FPMT, for one year; and you will receive the Kurukulla Center newsletter, Lotus Arrow, and all fliers announcing teachings.

For $40 per month (or $400 per year) you can become a Regular Member. Students, and those on limited incomes, can join for $25 per month (or $250 per year). As a Regular Member/Student Member you receive all the benefits of a Friend of Kurukulla Center, plus you can attend teachings by Geshe Tsulga, and regular classes, free of charge.

A Sustaining Membership entails a donation of $100 per month (or $1,000 per year). As a Sustaining Member, you receive all the benefits of a Regular Membership, plus you attend all events at Kurukulla Center free of charge.

If you cannot afford these membership rates, but would like to make a regular contribution to Kurukulla Center, please contact Suzanne at (617) 628-1953. All donations are gratefully appreciated. If you cannot afford a donation, please come to the teachings anyway as a guest of the Center.

The Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT) is an international organization of more than eighty Buddhist meditation and teaching centers and similar activities around the world under the spiritual directorship of Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, a highly accomplished yogi and scholar born in Nepal in 1946 and trained in monasteries in Tibet and India. With his main teacher, Lama Thubten Yeshe, who passed away in 1984, he founded the FPMT in 1975. The Foundation's main office is in California, where the FPMT publishes a bimonthly newsmagazine, Mandala. Kurukulla members receive Mandala automatically. The FPMT can be contacted by writing to PO Box 1778, Soquel, CA 95073.