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Kopan Monastery: The Wellspring of FPMT
By Ven. Thubten Kunsel
Six hundred people fitted comfortably into Kopan’s magnificent new gompa for its inauguration ceremony on February 17, 1996 (see “Kopan Monastery’s New Gompa: Loved, Lived In and Full of Dharma“). Lama Thubten Yeshe would have been delighted. “I want this hill covered in the monastery,” Lama said in 1975. This would seem to be happening.
Just north of the ancient Buddhist town of Boudhanath is Kopan Hill, reaching up out of the terraced fields of the Kathmandu valley and visible for miles. Dominated by its magnificent bodhi tree, it was once the home of the astrologer to the King of Nepal.
Now, appropriately, Kopan is a thriving monastery of 260 Nepali and Tibetan monks, the place of study for the 150 Khachoe Ghakyil Nunnery and a spiritual oasis for hundreds of visitors yearly from around the world.
And it is the wellspring of the FPMT, a network of some ninety centers and activities worldwide, themselves expressions of the Buddha activity of Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche.
It was to this blessed hill that these lamas came with their first Western students in 1969. From where they lived in Boudhanath, according to Rinpoche, Lama would “look out through the window at a particular hill” in the distance. “He seemed very attracted to it, and one day we went out to check that hill. It was the Kopan hill.”
Rinpoche gave his first public teachings at Kopan in 1971 to a group of 12 Westerners, an intensive one-month introduction to Buddhism that became the model for the meditation courses now held throughout the year at Kopan and in Dharma centers worldwide.
The monastery, however, had its beginnings in the Solo Khumbu region of the Himalayan mountains. In 1971 Lama Zopa, the reincarnation of the yogi of the tiny hamlet of Lawudo, Kunsang Yeshe, fulfilled the promise of the previous Lawudo Lama to start a monastic school for the local children. Rinpoche called it Mount Everest Center.
The 25 monks of MEC moved down from the mountains to Kopan in 1971. Monks from the age of five now come from all over Nepal to attend this Gelugpa monastery, one of the best in the Kathmandu valley, to receive a classical monastic education. Nearly half of the 260 monks now at Kopan are Tibetan, many of them recent refugees from Tibet itself.
In 1979 Lama Yeshe invited nuns to study at Kopan, an uncommon practice in Tibetan monasteries. There are now 150 nuns, mainly Tibetan, living in their own monastery nearby, who participate fully with the monks in their schedule of philosophical studies and debate. And for six months last year 10 nuns studied the art of constructing sand mandalas, and five of them demonstrated their skills in France and Belgium (see “Five Tibetan Nuns Make Sand Mandalas in Europe”).
Kopan has grown hugely in the past 27 years. On the site of the original stone house is now the four-storied Chenrezig gompa, finished four years ago and used for the visitors’ course and retreats. The original Norbulingka, where most of the monks lived, gave way in 1991 to the 54-room, four-story, red brick new Norbulingka. At the back of the hill the three-story Tabsheling houses visitors, and a dozen other buildings dotted around the hill house classrooms, the kitchen, guest rooms, store rooms, offices, the shop, the library. And now the famous old gompa in front of the bodhi tree has given way to the new gompa, the crown jewel of Kopan.
The infrastructure of Kopan is becoming more stable. A new transformer and generator have been installed, insurance against the unreliable local supply. And not only does the monastery have its own water supply now – a far cry from the days when it had to be carried by hand from the spring down the hill – but it has a sophisticated filter system that purifies the normally undrinkable water. The Kopan offices are being computerized and the phone lines have been upgraded. And the road from the nunnery to Kopan is completely new, with a bitumen surface, drainage channels and retaining walls. “It’s as smooth as the roads in Switzerland!” says Ueli Minder (“Kopan the Mother”).
The monastery continues to outgrow itself. The continual influx of monks makes the demand for more accommodation urgent. Also needed is a new kitchen and dining rooms for monks and visitors. The plans for all this have been drawn up.
From the beginning Kopan has managed to be many things to many people, sometimes uncomfortably for the traditionalists, but always successfully. And it is definitely a blessed place: blessed by the practice of holy and ordinary beings. “It is like a pure land,” said one of the monks who is now studying at Sera in south India.
And truly it is an oasis for the thousands of Westerners, who, tired of their materialism and hungry for something more, have made the place their home for weeks, months, even years. Since the ’70s the Kopan lamas and monks have managed to live their monastic lives and at the same time find space in their monastery and their hearts for these thousands of visitors, who come now also from other parts of Asia. They have taught them Lord Buddha’s Dharma, counseled them, served them, cooked for them, learned their languages.
Many many people have made this happen. The baby monks who happily carry meals to retreaters, come rain or come shine; Kancha the cook who, since the ’70s, has manifested his astonishingly creative meals – sometimes for 600 people – from his absurdly simple kitchen; the jeep drivers, who would definitely win endurance tests in other parts of the world for their skillful maneuvering of the crazy road to Kopan; the translator monks; the first librarian Ven. Thubten Samphel and the present one
Ngawang Thinley (who’s also the chant leader), who make the library a haven; the shopkeepers; and the scores of monk-office workers who have borne the brunt of the Injies’ frustrations with life-in-the-East, and happily tried to serve their every need.
Lama Pasang, who managed Kopan for years and worked always to fulfill Lama Yeshe’s wishes; he died in 1993 while digging a well for the nuns. Ven. Fran Mohoupt, who assists Lama Lhundrup; and Ven. Karin who for years has taken responsibility for overseeing and teaching the year-round courses for visitors. The kind geshes. Tenpa Chöden, who calmly and unobtrusively manages Kopan; precious Geshe Lama Konchog, who came after Lama Yeshe passed away; the magician, Gelek Gyatso Rinpoche; and Geshe Lama Lhundrup, the abbot and mother.
Since the very beginning, so many people from all over the word have taken the place to their hears, making it their home, working with joy to support the monks and nuns, to fulfill the wishes of Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche: the lamas’ first Western student, Zina Rachevsky, who helped make Kopan happen; Ven. Max Mathews, whom Lama called “Mummy”; Peter Kedge; Ven. Marcel Bertels; Ven. Thubten Gyatso – Dr. Adrian – who started the first Kopan clinic; Karuna and Pam Cayton; Judith Hunt; Maureen O’Malley; Ven. Tenzin Namdrol.… And the sponsors and benefactors from every corner of the earth, whose names are too many to mention.
The first of Kopan’s monks, some twenty of them, who are studying to be geshes at Sera in south India, are coming back home now to teach the young monks, moving the monastery into its second generation. Kopan has come of age.
- Older Archives
- Mandala for 1983
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- Mandala for 1990
- Mandala for 1992
- Mandala for 1995
- Mandala for 1996
- Mandala for 1997
- Remembering Death
- Relating to Your Path
- Geshe Tsulga
- Kopan Monastery: The Wellspring of FPMT
- Kopan Monastery: Kopan the Mother
- Kopan Monastery: Coming Home
- Kopan Monastery: A New Era for Kathmandu Center
- Kopan Monastery’s New Gompa: Loved, Lived in and Full of Dharma
- Lama Osel’s News
- Mogchok Rinpoche Arrives at Nalanda
- The Passing Scene: May-June 1997
- Training Tibetan Translators
- Home Truths: May-June 1997
- Mandala for 1998
- Mandala for 1999
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About Mandala Publications
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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