Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Root Institute in Bodhgaya now offering the FPMT Basic Program

Lately friends have been asking me where I stay when I travel to India.

I spend a lot of time in the town of Bodhgaya, which is in the Indian state of Bihar. Over two thousand five hundred years ago, Prince Siddhārtha Gautama attained enlightenment/Buddhahood while sitting underneath a Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya. That very spot - located within the Mahabodhi Temple grounds - is a popular pilgrimage destination for Buddhists.

Me underneath the Bodhi tree in 2015.

The nearest train station is Gaya Junction and the nearest airport is Gaya airport. By train, it is an overnight journey from Delhi.

Each time I go to Bodhgaya I stay at the Root Institute for Wisdom Culture ("the Root"), an easy thirty minute walk from the Mahabodhi Temple. The Root is a nonprofit retreat center that offers residential courses on Buddhism, as well as guest accommodation for visitors from India and around the world.

The Root Institute front gate in 2015.

The Root Institute's residential courses usually last for about ten days. I took my very first course in India, Seven Points of Mind Training with Gen Gyatso (translated from Tibetan into English by Claire Yeshe Barde) at the Root in January 2014. I have returned to the Root each year since 2014. I take courses, and also stay at the Root in the female dormitory while doing my own thing in Bodhgaya.

Earlier this year while staying at the Root I learned a new offering was in the works - a residential, five year Buddhism program to start in September 2017 known as "the Basic Program".

The Basic Program in itself isn't a new thing. It is a five year, twelve-subject Tibetan Buddhism practice-oriented course created by the Root's co-founder, Lama Zopa Rinpoche that can be completed in person at a number of FPMT retreat centers around the world or online. Since it falls underneath Lama Zopa Rinpoche's nonprofit FPMT, I will refer to it as the FPMT Basic Program.

The FPMT Basic Program was designed to help students better understand the Buddha's teachings and to establish a sound basis for the students' practice, retreat and community service.

After completing at least nine of the core curriculum subjects the student engages in a three month long review, followed by a final exam. At some point students must also complete a three study month retreat on the lamrim (which can be done in three parts of one month each).

The student then becomes a Graduate of the Basic Program, and is awarded the Basic Program Completion Certificate by the FPMT. Graduates are eligible to serve as teachers and tutors within the FPMT community.

You can read more about FPMT Basic Program here.

The introduction of the FPMT Basic Program to the Root is significant. It is the first time the FPMT Basic Program has been offered in a residential setting in India, the birthplace of Buddhism.

The FPMT non-residential Buddhism study center in Bangalore, Choe Khor Sum Ling (CKSL) also reached a milestone this year when five CKSL students completed the first 13 of the 14 module FPMT Discovering Buddhism program series. (The 14th and final module must be done individually by completing personal retreats.)

Venerable Tenzin Namjong teaching at CKSL. Photo by Sveta Guralnik.
The 13 FPMT Discovering Buddhism modules were taught at CKSL by four highly qualified monks from Sera Jey Monastery who take turns commuting from the monastery to CKSL to teach.

Venerable Tenzin Legtsok (American),
Venerable Gyalten Rabten (Singaporean),
Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Venerable Tenzin Namdak (Dutch),
Venerable Tenzin Namjong (American). Photo from CKSL Facebook.

The FPMT Discovering Buddhism series is another opportunity for students to study Buddhism at their own pace. The FPMT Discovering Buddhism series is offered at FPMT centers around the world (like CKSL) and is also available online for a fee.

Each module of FPMT Discovering Buddhism is composed of teachings, meditations, practices, readings, assessment questions, and a short retreat. If a student wants to receive a Certificate of Completion for having finished the FPMT Discovering of Buddhism series of 14 modules, then the student must complete the teachings, meditations, practices, readings, assessment questions, and the short retreat associated with each of the modules. Otherwise the practices and other elements associated with each module are optional.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche has said while they are optional, "they are the foundational practices that open the mind to realizations on the path and clear away lifetimes of negative karmic buildup, preparing us for not only a happy death and future rebirth, but also for the ultimate happiness of liberation and enlightenment."

A student who achieves the FPMT Discovering Buddhism Certificate of Completion should feel a sense of personal satisfaction. The certificate is symbolic of the student's commitment to their studies, and that the student has comprehensively engaged with the lamrim, or the path to enlightenment.

So imagine the benefit - and experience - of engaging in the five year FPMT Basic Program while living in Bodhgaya, a thirty minute walk from the place where Buddha attained enlightenment. Congratulations to the group of western, Indian, and Tibetan students who began the FPMT Basic Program on September 5, 2016.

Basic Program class taking place at the Root. Photo from the Root's Facebook page.

The FPMT Basic Program at the Root will cover nine Buddhism texts. Classes will be held for eight months each year (from September to April) with an annual two week Christmas break. The course finishes in April 2021.

Classes are held on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings from 7PM - 9PM, and on Saturday afternoons from 3PM - 5PM. Here's the tentative five year class schedule. If it's hard to read then you can find it online.

For an overview of the FPMT Basic Program curriculum at the Root go here.

You can get a sense of what the online version of the FPMT Basic Program is like by watching this series of FPMT Basic Program teachings given by Venerable George Churinoff at the Land of Medicine Buddha in California, or the below teachings given by Geshe Jamphel Gyaltsen at Nalanda Monastery in France.

Tibet born Geshe Jamphel Gyaltsen was invited by Lama Zopa Rinpoche to teach the FPMT Basic Program at Nalanda Monastery in 2012. While waiting for a visa, he got his first experience teaching westerners ... at the Root.

Venerable George Churinoff and Geshe Jamphel Gyaltsen are two of the nine remarkable teachers who teach the online version of the the FPMT Basic Program. After reading about the nine teachers, I am even more thankful to Lama Zopa Rinpoche for all he has done to bring Buddhism to the west.

The Root welcomed their new resident teacher (chosen by Lama Zopa Rinpoche), Geshe Ngawang Rabga when I was there earlier this year. It was amazing to get to be in class on March 3rd when Geshe Ngawang Rabga gave his first teaching at a FPMT center and to a western audience. I was able to attend a few more of his classes at the Root this year.

Born in Tibet, Geshe Ngawang Rabga completed his PhD (Lharampa Geshe degree) at Sera Jey Monasery in south India. He recently completed his tantric exams at Gyuto Monastery near Dharamsala, where he also spent time studying English.

Geshe Ngawang Rabga. Photo from the Root website.

Like Geshe Jamphel Gyaltsen at Nalanda Monastery, Geshe Ngawang Rabga teaches his classes in Tibetan. When he first arrived at the Root, his teachings were translated into English by Venerable Tenzin Legtsok (one of CKSL's teachers) and another westerner studying at Sera Jey Monastery, Venerable Jampa Khedrub (Australian). They both happened to be at the Root when Geshe Ngawang Rabga arrived.

I greatly enjoyed watching the three monks from Sera Jey Monastery sitting at the picnic table over lunch, laughing and talking. They welcomed students to join them; it was great to get to talk with Geshe Ngawang Rabga over lunch one day, with the help of interpreter Venerable Khedrub.

The Root's new resident translator, Anastasia Stoliarova (Ana) from Russia also arrived while I was at the Root. Ana is a 2014 graduate of Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo Translator Program (LRZTP), FPMT's four year residential Tibetan translation program in Dharamsala and is a FPMT Russian translator. (LRZTP also offers a two month residential course in Dharamsala.)

LZRTP 2014 class. Photo from FPMT blog.
Since I left the Root in March, Geshe Ngawang Rabga and Ana have been joined by Shahar Tene, who will serve as the FPMT Basic Program Tutor. Born in Israel, in 2014 Shahar received his Basic Program Certificate of Completion from Instituto Lama Tsong Khapa in Italy and is a registered FPMT teacher.

Shahar Tene. Photo from Tushita Dharamsala website.

Currently Geshe Ngawang Rabga's teachings are being translated by Venerable Thubten Dekyong (Venerable Tsenla), a FPMT Basic Program graduate. She directed the growth of FPMT's Khachoe Ghakyil Nunnery in Nepal in its first years, raising the funds needed to buy the land and erect the buildings. Her story is amazing.

Venerable Tsenla translating for Geshe Ngawang Rabga. Photo from the Root enewsletter.

Venerable Thubten Khadro is the Root's new FPMT Basic Program Coordinator, as well as the Root's Spiritual Program Coordinator (SPC). She was recommended for this role by Lama Zopa Rinpoche. Previously she was a SPC in New Zealand. She holds a FPMT Masters Program Certificate, the highest educational achievement within FPMT.

Venerable Thubten Khadro received her certificate in 2013 after completing six years of study with the Instituto Lama Tsong Khapa in Italy, where the FPMT Masters Program was created. FPMT Masters Program students also engage in three months of review and final exams, and a total of a one year retreat. The first class of FPMT Masters Program students graduated in 2004. The third class began their studies in March 2015.

Ana, the Root's Director Venerable Tenzin Paldron, Geshe Ngawang Rabga,
Venerable Thubten Khadro. Photo from the Root enewsletter.

The FPMT Masters Program coursework brings the traditional monastic curriculum to the west. It complements FPMT's other study programs - FPMT Discovering Buddhism and the FPMT Basic Program, as well as FPMT Living in the Path (an online and in person study program), the FPMT Foundation of Buddhist Thought (a correspondence course offered by Geshe Tashi Tsering who resides and teaches in England).

Geshe Tashi Tsering explained why it's important to study the sutras, the original words of the Buddha:

The FPMT Masters Program also complements the coursework offered by the FPMT affiliated nonprofit Buddhist higher education institution in Portland, Oregon, Maitripa College.

Yangsi Rinpoche teaching in the gompa/temple at Maitripa College.
Photo from Maitripa website.

Founded by Lama Zopa Rinpoche and directed by Yangsi Rinpoche, Maitripa College awards a Masters Degree in Buddhist Studies, and a Masters of Divinity degree recognized by the State of Oregon, and will hopefully soon have regional accreditation on par with other nonprofit colleges and universities.

I am fortunate to get to attend Yangsi Rinpoche's public September - October Thursday evening teachings when I am in Portland. The easiest way to learn about Yangsi Rinpoche's Portland teachings is to subscribe to the Maitripa College enewsletter.

I am looking forward to learning more about the FPMT Basic Program at the Root when I next visit Bodhgaya. It will be fun to sit in on Geshe Ngawang Rabga's classes, which are open to the public. On the FPMT Basic Program at the Root website it is noted "casual visitors are welcome to the teachings and meditations on the basis of quiet attendance, leaving active participation to the actual Basic Program students."

Geshe Ngawang Rabga teaching at the Root. Photo from the Root Facebook page.

Geshe Ngawang Rabga shared these encouraging words with FPMT Basic Program at the Root's new students:

"On the path to knowledge we might meet some difficulties. It'd be good not to have any problems but such situations are very rare, therefore we have to utilise whatever circumstances we have as a path.

Whatever external conditions there are – climate, environment, food etc. – we need to always concentrate on our main goal, which is to build a firm foundation in Buddhist philosophy. In that way, having put due effort into our studies, we'll get to the point where we can proceed to practice Dharma properly – with understanding based on knowledge. That's very important for our future prospects. 

We should generate a pure motivation, take good care of our health, help others, and study well. That's what will give good results and bring us to our goal. And I from my side will try my best to help the students develop in their studies."

Best of luck to the first class of FPMT Basic Program students at the Root in Bodhgaya.

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