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‘A Transforming Experience in a Completely Unexpected Way’: Masters Program Students Near End of Studies at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa
By ILTK Masters Program staff and students
Lama Yeshe’s aim, his wish in setting up this program, was to enable people to study and come to a deeper understanding of the Buddhist teachings, both the vast and profound, as well as sutra and tantra, so that they could then teach other people. His purpose was also to enable each person to develop his or her inner qualities, such as perfect love and compassion, to complete the six perfections, and to achieve final enlightenment. In this way they would be able to help other sentient beings by leading them from cyclic existence to the great city of enlightenment. It was for this purpose that Lama Yeshe asked me to teach this program.” – Geshe Jampa Gyatso, “The Birth of the Masters Program,” Mandala, 1999
The second cycle of the FPMT Masters Program at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa (ILTK), Pomaia, Italy, is coming to a close. Based on Lama Yeshe’s unique vision for comprehensive education and inspired by the traditional geshe studies at the Tibetan Gelug monastic universities, the Masters Program is the FPMT’s most advanced study program. Consisting of six years of intensive study followed by a one-year retreat, it provides serious students with the opportunity to explore deeply the major treatises of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism and to gain a strong grasp of the profound tradition of Lama Tsongkhapa. From among those individuals who successfully complete this program of study, it is hoped that some will show suitable interest and abilities and become qualified teachers of Buddhist theory and practice in FPMT centers. Integrating components of behavior, study, meditation and service, the program provides students with the conditions necessary to engage in in-depth study of three major Buddhist Mahayana treatises (Abhisamayalamkara, Madhyamakavatara and Abhidharmakosha) as well as tantric grounds and paths and the tantra of Guhyasamaja, providing students with a thorough grounding in both sutra and tantra.
The Masters Program was principally developed in the1980s and 1990s at ILTK by the late Geshe Jampa Gyatso, who had been requested to do so by his close friend Lama Yeshe. The program has been shaped further in close cooperation with FPMT Education Services under the guidance of and with detailed input from Lama Zopa Rinpoche. The students of the first complete Masters Program cycle successfully concluded their studies in 2004 at ILTK; several of those students went on to do the advised (at that time) one-year retreat during 2005. In addition to ILTK’s residential Masters Program, Nalanda Monastery began offering a residential Masters Program in September 2013.
Students of the Masters Program class of 2008-2013 at ILTK are currently preparing for their final exams. Marina Brucet (Spain), Yumi Terada (Japan), Ven. Tiziana Losa (Italy), Hans Burghardt (Spain) and Jacob Fisher (England) have all participated in this Masters Program from the very beginning. They were interviewed in July 2013 about their backgrounds, their studies up to now and their upcoming retreats.
What you were doing before you came to study the Masters Program?
Marina: I studied biochemistry at the University of Barcelona and later on completed a Ph.D. in molecular biology. Just before starting the Masters Program, I was working on post-doctoral research on malaria, with a research group whose task it was to fight malaria in Africa. I decided to change careers and to dedicate my whole life to the Dharma, and that’s why I left research and enrolled in the Masters Program.
Yumi: I was working as an administrative assistant and secretary while studying the Basic Program at Amitabha Buddhist Centre, Singapore.
Ven. Tiziana: I was working for Liberation Prison Project in San Francisco. I was fortunate enough to offer my service to Lama Zopa Rinpoche when I became ordained and he suggested that I enroll in the Masters Program. I have to say the truth: I was not into studying, but more into service. Now I am so grateful for this advice because I feel that my faith is now based on knowledge. It is much deeper, and my motivation for engaging in the practice of the Dharma has grown immensely. So I feel so fortunate to have completed these studies.
Jacob: I was involved in the street art scene in London.
Hans: I was working in a laboratory as a post-doctoral fellow at a research center in Barcelona, investigating the role of a particular protein in cancer. Four years before starting the Masters Program, I started to realize that my interest in that kind of research was becoming eclipsed by my interest in the “contemplative” sciences.
If you were to sum up your experience of the Masters Program in one sentence, what would it be?
Marina: I’ve learned an incredible amount during the Masters Program, not only about Buddhist philosophy, but I also had the opportunity and good circumstances to learn about myself and to improve from that.
Yumi: The benefit I have gained from the Masters Program study was more than what I had to give up in order to come here.
Ven. Tiziana: As I said before, faith based on knowledge and understanding is the greatest gift I received from this course.
Jacob: This is the kind of thing you wait lifetimes to be able to do.
Hans: A transforming experience in a completely unexpected way.
What was the best part of the Masters Program for you?
Marina: [The best has been] all I’ve learned about Buddhist philosophy, especially on emptiness and on the view of the Buddhist path. Parallel to that, the program gives you the conditions to practice Dharma and to work a lot on transforming your mind as you face all the different phases you go through when engaging in such deep studies. It also gave me the opportunity to start teaching introduction to meditation, which I appreciate very, very much.
Yumi: For me, it was Guhyasamaja Tantra because it was the culmination of all the presentations that we had studied before this text.
Ven. Tiziana: It is difficult to say, because all the texts have their own particular purpose, and they are all necessary to give an overview on the entire path.
Jacob: For me, it was studying the tantra modules with Geshe Gelek, as I found this part of the studies much easier to relate to. The transmission of the knowledge from the various realized lineage masters seemed so much closer and more direct. It also showed me in a much more precise way how an unenlightened mind can become free and transformed into that of a buddha. Geshe-la has a very profound knowledge of this area. I found his teachings very lucid and they helped me understand the great depth and intensiveness of the various teachings of tantra in this lineage.
Hans: Aside from the amazing teachings from Khensur Rinpoche Jampa Tegchok on the Madhyamakavatara and many other things, the best was the possibility to start teaching introductory courses. I’ve learned a lot from those whom we usually label as “beginners.” They’ve also given me a boost of motivation to further deepen my practical knowledge and to develop and strengthen the wish to go on one retreat after another for as long as possible, before I start teaching, to be able to give them as much as possible.
How would you describe the benefits of such long-term study to your practice, faith and devotion for the Buddhadharma?
Marina: This long-term study gives the opportunity to get fully involved in the Dharma; it gives the space to deepen knowledge of ourselves and to work on transforming our own mind, sometimes in unexpected ways, as we face the different phases (both positive and negative) of experience that we go through. These studies are really challenging, in both an intellectual and an experiential way. In parallel, my practice and understanding of the Buddhadharma have really been enriched by my studies, which have given me a much deeper knowledge of the path.
Yumi: My understanding of the methods that lead to buddhahood and the state of buddhahood itself has become more clear over the six years of the philosophical study. This understanding of the exact causes that lead to buddhahood has been helping me to develop faith of conviction in actions and their results as well as faith in the inconceivable qualities of buddhas.
Ven. Tiziana: Unbelievable!
Jacob: Many strange ideas that one may hold about the Dharma and practice are removed, and I have seen how much of my practice was based on inspired faith alone. Seeing precisely how a being progresses through the various levels to enlightenment as well as the mechanics of that process brings faith and an immense appreciation that we have such teachings here, still existing with unbroken lineages and living masters capable of transmitting this knowledge. You see how enlightenment is not some vague concept in the oh-so-distant future, but a reality that is possible for all sentient beings.
Hans: The studies give you a broad panorama, making you able to place in it many different practices and methods that otherwise may look unrelated. Thanks to this, one’s own faith gets stronger and deeper.
How has your study of the great treatises complemented your understanding and application of the lam-rim?
Ven. Tiziana: The great treatises are the sources where the stages of the path are delineated. Abhisamayalamkara gives the details of the vast, Madhyamakavatara of the profound, the Abhidharmakosha of the four noble truths; then tantra gives us tools to completely and quickly achieve the goal of all these, i.e., the state of enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. Studying these great treatises gives a much deeper understanding of all the topics of the lam-rim.
Marina: Mainly, the studies helped me to give a broader context to the lam-rim, to better understand the whole path of the three scopes and the two types of result, nirvana and enlightenment. Also, Khensur Rinpoche Jampa Tegchok helped us to understand emptiness in a much better way, which is priceless.
Jacob: I would say that all the topics of the lam-rim have been enriched by these studies. I feel I understand them better now, what is the lam (path) and what is the rim (stages). But essentially, the significance of bodhichitta at the beginning, the middle and the end, and how the root of it all is really one’s teachers – everything is possible because of their kindness, grace, and one’s openness and pure view of them.
How does studying the Masters Program integrate the development of the wisdoms arising from listening, contemplating and meditating?
Marina: In the Masters Program, there is the chance to gain a lot of wisdom from listening, and we are also encouraged to practice the wisdom of contemplating, of analyzing. The wisdom of meditating is not so much emphasized; it’s mainly left to oneself. It’s a challenge, one from which it’s possible to gain a lot of strength, if I apply it.
Yumi: By listening to Geshe-la’s teaching, the wisdom arising from listening can be generated if one is paying full attention to it. It is also possible to even generate the wisdom arising from thinking when listening to the teachings again, but this time from our teaching assistant and engaging in discussion with fellow students during review class. However, to generate the wisdom arising from meditation one has to develop the mind of the form or formless realm, as explained in the Abhidharmakosha!
Ven. Tiziana: When I started the Masters Program I was quite new to Buddhism, so I feel that in these years I mainly listened to the teachings and tried to do as much study as I could to get a clear picture of the path. With the one-year retreat, I will have more time to reflect and meditate.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced during your years of study, how did you get over them?
Marina: The main challenge for me has been the traditional way of presenting the texts. I overcame it by focusing on the fact that we were learning many things that hopefully would help myself and others in the future, by realizing the amazing work and practice we were doing despite the difficulties, by cultivating acceptance and thus transforming my mind, and also, by understanding that the opportunity was unique, and that it is one of the challenges of our generation to learn Buddhism and to transmit it to the West in the best possible way.
Ven. Tiziana: The treatises can be quite complicated and difficult to understand. I had to accept that there are things that I could not understand right away and that things get clearer slowly, slowly while engaging in further study and reflection.
Jacob: Not always having sufficient resources to remain and continue studying. This was overcome by the incredible kindness and generosity of many people.
Hans: The system of teaching of the program, which consisted mainly in the reading and commenting on every single line of a commentary on the root text, which is very different from the system I was used to. I overcame it with patience and not placing much energy on details but focusing on those points that I found significant.
What do you hope to gain from the culminating one-year retreat?
Marina: I really hope to be able to integrate some of the things we’ve learned during the Masters Program into myself, to gain deeper understanding of the Dharma and of myself, and to set the basis to stabilize and start transforming my mind at a deeper level, a task that I hope will not only be done during the retreat but will continue for the rest of my life. As I see it, it’s the only way to effectively be of benefit to others.
Yumi: I hope to be able to develop some inner qualities that can be really used to help others.
Ven. Tiziana: I feel the need now to have more time to reflect on what I have been studying. Reflection and meditation are essential to gain experience of what we have learned. I am feeling very fortunate to have this rare opportunity.
Jacob: The opportunity to really be in a perfect environment for meditation, and the chance to try and really become this Dharma that we’ve been studying.
Hans: The integration at a deeper level of some of the subjects we’ve studied, and an increased wish to do long retreats.
We really need to train and familiarize with the essence, to put the essential drop of the teachings into practice. We listen to the explanation and we study, but what is the actual practice? Just reading the text, listening to the explanation, and so forth is not the actual practice; it is not the essence. Practice is when you probe the meaning and develop your experience.” – Khensur Rinpoche Jampa Tegchok, during his commentary on Chandrakirti’s Supplement to the Middle Way (Madhyamakavatara)
To be able to teach from experience, students of the Masters Program are well aware that studying alone is not enough. With the required year-long retreat still to do, these students are looking for places to do retreat and for funds to cover the costs of food and accommodation throughout the entire year. Seven students are currently planning to start retreat in January 2014 and are looking for support, including financial support.
To read more about the Masters Program, visit FPMT Education Services page on the program.
The next cycle of the Masters Program at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa is scheduled to begin in 2015. For more information please go to www.iltk.org.
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Mandala Publications is the official publication of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), an international charitable organization founded by two Tibetan Buddhist masters, Lama Thubten Yeshe (1935-1984) and Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche. FPMT is a vibrant international community, with a network of 160 affiliate centers, projects and services, and members in more than 30 countries.
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