The main purpose of studying the Buddhist scriptures is to develop good qualities,
such as love and compassion, and to eliminate negative emotions, such as the mental poisons—attachment, hatred and ignorance – through understanding and applying the appropriate antidotes.
Acharya Geshe Jampa Gyatso
Monastic Life at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa
Ven. Tenzin Peljor and Tenzin Tsomo
A castle in the middle of Tuscany is the unique setting for the traditional study of the great classical Buddhist texts as Abhisamyalamkara. The unique combination also known as Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa is the home of dedicated monks and nuns who engage in serious study and practice on the one hand, and on the other try to balance the untraditional and Italian freedom that such a situation encompasses.
This setting creates an interesting lifestyle for the ordained between these who balance these two extremes. There is a strict study schedule with 18 hours of teachings per week (12 hours of teachings and 6 hours of review classes). Yet is a lot of freedom in terms of ones own daily schedule. There is no disciplinarian waking you up at 5 o´ clock in the morning. The freedom is also regulated by a weekly quiz on Monday, forcing one to sit down at the weekend and actually study, instead of enjoying the nearby beach.
A Study Program
The first three subjects of the Masters Program will be taught by our precious teacher Lharampa Geshe Tenzin Thenpel. Geshe-la is a perfect scholar and teaches in a very precise, systematic, and knowledgeable way. Geshe-la’s profound inner qualities are obvious for anyone to see. He is very centered and focused, but also humorous and warm hearted. In Tibetan monastic colleges he is known as the “happy Geshe” (freely quoted from Lama Zopa). With great patience he tolerates our very finicky western academic behavior and provides precious teachings between the lines.
His teaching assistants, Ven. Olivier, a French gelong, and Toh Szee Ghee from Singapore, are very knowledgeable and perfectly qualified for this demanding job.
For the next six years, the students in the Masters Program will focus on the hearing, contemplation and meditation of the following five texts:
• Ornament for Clear Realization (Abhisamayalamkara)
• Supplement to the ‘Middle Way’ (Madhyamakavatara)
• Treasury of Manifest Knowledge (Abhidharmakosha)
• Grounds and Paths of Secret Mantra, and
• Guhyasamaja Tantra
The studies program will conclude with a 9 month personal retreat.
On March 25, ordination was conferred on 12 new monks and nuns, bringing the total to 32 monks and nuns (evenly split among monks and nuns) living at the Institute. The monastics join 50 lay students in the Masters Program. Even the lay people are inspiring as they have endured difficulties to be able to study here; providing a glimpse of renunciation even among those living without vows.
While the institute is busy, it can also be noted for its quiet and calm aspect. On weekends there are up to four different courses scheduled by the Institute.
The monks live in the quarters at the Institute itself in their own monastery. The situation for the nuns is more challenging. While two of the younger nuns share a small dormitory, most of the others are lodged in different places outside of the Institute. Thus many of them have to pay for their own accommodation and are not able to live in community as nuns.
While there is adequate time devoted to one’s personal Dharma practice, group monastic practice activities are less frequent. There is a weekly guided Lamrim meditation led by Ven. Sangye Khadro, a monthly Tara Puja and the fortnightly Lama Chöpa in addition to sojong (monastic confession ritual) which happens twice monthly. The nuns also offer that the nuns a monthly Medicine Buddha Puja. The monks perform a daily Palden Lhamo Serkyem and a monthly Mahakala and Kalarupa Puja.
A Community of Monks
The 9 monks living in the monastery are fortunate to have a quiet place within the Institute’s main building. Other monks live in houses on the property of the Institute`s land, with others living outside of the community. Actually this “quiet place within the Institute” is the “Tagden Shedrub Dhargye Ling Monastery” (Place Where Study and Practice Proliferate Uninterruptedly) and is noted as “the first Gelugpa monastery in Italy.” (Strictly speaking, in addition to Sojong, a Buddhist monastery must also have an annual Rains retreat and End of Rains retreat ceremony.)
Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa generously offers accommodation and study for monks; they are requested to offer five hours per week of karma-yoga. Living in a community helps provide support and encouragement in practice and study. The monks come from all over the world to participate in the program (USA, UK, Netherlands, Italy and Germany). Each brings their own cultural and personal background, yet still manage to live in harmony, without conflict. As Ven. Lobsang said: “I find this monastery supportive, harmonious, friendly and relaxed.” We rejoice in this precious opportunity.
A Community of Nuns
There are nuns of different ages, different personalities and styles, and of different nationalities (with Italy representing the largest contingent). The represent a variety of different approaches to the practice of Tibetan Buddhism. In contrast to the monks, the nuns do not live together under the same roof, but are scattered in various accommodation at the Institute and within the surrounding villages. It is worth mentioning that 6 nuns are living together in a flat as a community just outside the local village. They are sharing the rent of the apartment and trying to successfully establish a monastic community in a nontraditional environment. Other nuns live in the small “casettas” at the Institute or in rented flats nearby. The living situation does not offer the traditional approach to life as a Buddhist nun. To practice, work, eat and live in a community is difficult enough, and even more so when the nuns are living in different places. While the occasions for practice and to be together are few, they are deeply appreciated.
Many of the senior nuns are involved in responsibilities of coordination, administration and other kinds of activities at the Institute; while others are studying in the masters program.
The difficulties faced in the present situation will be mitigated with the realisation of the monastery as envisioned by Geshe Jampa Gyatso. The monastery will be one of the biggest Buddhist monastic communities in the West, allowing monks and nuns to live in accord with the Vinaya, to study in the right environment and to engage in retreat. The monastery will offer similar opportunities to the great monasteries of South India. Of course, this will also include the 5:00 am wake up call by the disciplinarian.
With the flourishing of this monastic community, we see the middle way approach balancing an untraditional Italian perspective, with the intellectually challenging study of dharma, proper monastic training in accordance with the Vinaya, as fundamental.
Qualm and Response
Qualm: Isn’t the Western ordained Sangha in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition more like a “Club of Individualists”?
Qualm: Is this really the case? And do we wish to preserve this situation?
Response: Monastic life is undertaken to train oneself; to be a part of the community where one respects the elder and cares for the younger monastics. More specificly, this means the integration into a traditional monastic community. Being part of a community is a discipline which helps reduces self-cherishing and attachment to one’s ego. The monastic community acts as a protective framework to develop inner freedom.
When the monastery is realized, it will be the seed for a new generation of monastics, living and practicing together. Perhaps younger monks and nuns will be inspired and recognize the benefit of dedicating their life to the Dharma and living, and being supported in their practice by trained elders.