April 4, 2006

Ithaca Home to Tibetan Resettlement Community and Buddhist Monastery

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This article is the first in a feature series about religion at Cornell and the greater Ithaca community.

Ithaca is not only home to families looking to settle in a scenic and peaceful country setting, artists hoping to remove themselves from the fast-paced lifestyle of metropolitan areas and environmental enthusiasts interested in exploring the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. The city also houses one of the first Tibetan resettlement communities in the United States as well as the North American seat of the personal monastery of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

This seat, the Namgyal Monastery Institute of Buddhist Studies, allows students to take classes in Tibetan Buddhism in a monastic setting without having to travel the 7,000 miles to India.

“The Institute’s three-year program takes a 15-year Buddhist education and reduces it to a three-year program for Western students,” said Jenine Rose Mollican, administrator of Namgyal Monastery.

Diane Fox, a student at the Namgyal Institute completing her three-year education, acknowledges the challenge of mastering the extensive amount of material in the Buddhist religion.

“Many monks and Geshes study about 15-20 years to master religion and teach it to new students,” she said. The three year program is fantastic, but is equivalent to having stopped learning after high school.”

So what can students do after having completed the courses of study at Namgyal? “Further education ideas are up to the student,” said Tenzin Thotop, resident teacher at the Institute. “There are infinite ways for students to improve spiritual understanding.”

In addition to offering a diverse array of courses ranging from “Colloquial Tibetan” to “Tonglen Meditation” and “Art and Expression in Tibetan Buddhism,” the Institute organizes a number of religious retreats, both weekend and week-long, throughout the year for students to learn and practice Buddhism in a setting different from the classroom. “While the classes consist mainly of residents of the Ithaca area, people come from all over to participate in our retreats,” said Thotop.

After the 1575 founding of the Namgyal Drastang (Victorious Monastery) by the Third Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso, in Tibet, the 14th Dalai Lama and 55 monks from Namgyal fled to India and Nepal, escaping the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959 and relocating the Namgyal Monastery to Dharamsala, India where its traditions are carried on today. In addition to assisting the Dalai Lama with their public religious activities, the Monastery has been a center for the Buddhist education and the teachings of the four main lineages of Tibetan Buddhism.

1992 marked a watershed for Buddhism and Tibetan culture in the United States as monks traveled from Dharamsala, India to Ithaca, to establish a branch of the Namgyal Monastery. Six Namgyal monks, a Geshe (the equivalent of a Ph.D.), and others with Master of Sutra and Tantra degrees were chosen to found the North American seat of the personal monastery of the 14th Dalai Lama.

There are approximately 20-30 Tibetan families living in Ithaca right now, and Mollican expects the population to continue increasing. As a way to keep involved in the Ithaca community, Namgyal has a Tibetan school for children where they can learn the language and keep the Tibetan culture alive.

Namgyal is also preparing to begin fundraising for a new Ithaca center.

“We will have a larger faculty, a few residences and retreat huts for students,” said Mollican.

Buddhism is the fourth largest world religion with roughly 350 million adherents. Tibetan Buddhism, practiced by the Namgyal Monastery, is unique in its observance of such a widespread religion. “Tibetan Buddhism is extremely comprehensive,” said Fox. “The Tibetan Monks collected teachings of Buddhism from around the world, incorporated them into their religion, and embodied them.”

Other distinct characteristics of Tibetan Buddhism are Tantra and Mandala. Fox refers to Tantra as “‘Deity yoga.’ It focuses on transforming the mind by focusing on compassion and wisdom. It is not focused on our physical bodies and their movement, as other types of yoga are.”

“[Tantra] isn’t trying to change anyone,” said Eva Marques, a student at Namgyal Institute and web editor of Snow Lion, an Ithaca-based newspaper about Buddhism. This Tantric path seeks to transform basic human passions of desire and aversion into spiritual growth and development.

Mandala is a specific art form in which compositions are created in sand, paint, or in 3-D as symbols of the pure, perfected universe. They outline feelings of peace, well-being and wholeness.

“Teaching our students about Mandala is an important part of their education,” said Thotop.

“The ultimate goal of Buddhism is to find happiness in life. How this is achieved is up to the individual,” said Thotop, in his address to a small room of Cornell students at the Watermargin Co-op yesterday. In addition to speaking about the basic tenets of Buddhism, students could ask Thopop and his colleague Tenzin Norbu open-ended questions concerning Buddhist ideals and how they can guide students through difficult times during their college experiences.

While one student identified stress as a major problem plaguing many college students, Thotop explained the idea of acceptance as a way to deal with this seemingly inescapable problem.

“We can’t find good everywhere in the world,” he said. “We have to look for good and accept the nature that is given to us. We have to accept pain and sickness, although it is difficult. When they come back, we will be better prepared than if we try to avoid these problems.”

Drawing an analogy to a cake, he said that all beings are involved in our lives. Even though a cake might have been made in our kitchen, ingredients like spices come from all over the world. While it seems as though different countries are not unified and at odds with one another, it is important to recognize the global interdependence of nations that continues to become more prevalent as society progresses today.

Archived article by Sarah Singer
Sun Staff Writer