Teaching Each Other The Dharma
A report from the Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche retreat in Bendigo, Australia 2014By Gelongma Lozang Yönten (Larisa Wahler)
Bendigo, Victoria fulfilled its promise of variable weather from biting cold to blazing hot – sometimes all in one day. Mirroring the changeable weather was, unsurprisingly, my mind – this is retreat after all. What remained constant and consistent was Lama Zopa Rinpoche. While his external aspect is no doubt different from what it was even a few short years ago, his message has reassuring sameness: for a happy life, destroy self cherishing; for buddhahood add to that destruction of self-cherishing and total annihilation of grasping at an inherently existent self. This is of course an extremely simplified take on what was a month of elaborate, poetic, sometimes humorous and even wrathful discourse. But in the great sea of Rinpoche’s words there is always the great stability and touchstone: compassion, compassion, compassion.
The question for me became how do I take the inspiration I feel in retreat like this as a means to launch a deeper and kinder “new normal” when I leave?
Happily, many such practical application questions were answered not only from the obvious source, our precious teacher Lama Zopa Rinpoche, but amongst ourselves – the huge and flourishing Sangha that attended the retreat. Rinpoche put a challenge to the students of the Basic Program and Masters Program: present a topic from these advanced studies in such as way as to tie them in to the Graduated Path to Enlightenment (Lam Rim) and your own daily life.
What came from this directive was a series of 40 – 90 minutes talks and guided meditations from a wide variety of students within FPMT. The students ranged from old school Lama Yeshe students who have been in FPMT from the beginning to people not even born into their present bodies when Lama Yeshe was alive. Both lay people and ordained Sangha participated and many nationalities were represented.
Highlights included one sincere young monk’s clear and inspiring presentation on his past two years studying Introduction Middle Way by Nagarjuna. After his talk he bravely asked if there were questions. The questions came from the Sangha themselves and a lively and friendly debate ensued, punctuated by lots of laughter. It struck me that while all of us are heartfelt and sincere in our study, practice and devotion, it was a good sign to see us Sangha not take ourselves too seriously.
During these impromptu talks and meditations that Rinpoche had asked us to do, sometimes Rinpoche himself was in the room, behind a screen, doing his preparation for the empowerment. Imagine the pressure! One aspect that was interesting is that while of course we were nervous about the idea of speaking while Rinpoche was right there (!) but after the fact, all the people I spoke to agreed that they felt so supported by his presence in the room – quite the opposite to the intense final exam feeling we worried it might have been.
Also along the lines of Sangha teaching Sangha were a number of discussion groups that took place after lunch. A number of new people as well as very senior students were up for an addition to the already full schedule and attended the group sessions for two full weeks before the second half of the retreat began. The groups covered a huge amount of ground from brainstorming how to best attempt Rinpoche’s exquisite chanting of Lama Chopa to what different people meditate on during an empowerment. The conversations were liberally peppered with engaging anecdotes and the energy of the stupa felt like a gigantic family reunion where you finally get time to talk to that distant relative you always see but never had time to connect with.
Thinking over the recent retreat what stands out is the diversity of our Sangha, in terms of background, age, personality and skills makes us such a powerful and unique force of good in this world. Things that could just as easily bring division, for us bring strength, the vast majority of the time.
What is striking is how rich the FPMT is in competent, kind-hearted people. Rinpoche seemed to be pushing us all to “polish” the FPMT up and get even more organized and professional, for more people to take on more leadership and the materials to be even more clear and specific about their translation choices and scriptural sources. Like he trusts us to carry on this lineage and is giving us all the information he can in order to do that. As I looked around the sea of maroon (and rainbow sea of the lay community), I really had the sense that we can do this – we can help each other get enlightened and develop this organization closer and closer to Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s vision, in order to do that.
After a childhood interest and teenage passion for Dharma, Venerable Yönten became a nun in 2003 when she was 21 and received gelongma/bhikshuni ordination, with the permission of her Abbot, in 2011. She did her main study with Khensur Rinpoche Geshe Tashi Tsering from 2002-2009 at Chenrezig Institute before continuing studies in India and Taiwan until 2011. She then offered service at Chandrkirti Meditation Centre in New Zealand where she completed the exams necessary and became an FPMT Registered Teacher. She was then Resident Teacher at Kunsang Yeshe Retreat Centre in the Blue Mountains until October 2014. She is now planning to divide her time between study with Khensur Rinpoche in Brisbane, AU and offering service and retreat at various dharma centres.