Bamboo Through Concrete...Growing Tibetan Buddhism in the West

By Nicholas Ribush

Dr. Nicholas Ribush gives an account of his personal experience of Lama Yeshe, who helped introduce Tibetan Buddhism to the West.

This draft version became a chapter published in Inner Peace—Global Impact: Tibetan Buddhism, Leadership, and Work, by Kathryn Goldman Schuyler (2012) © Information Age Publishing ISBN 978-1-61735-918-7. This copy does not exactly replicate the final version published in the book.

Lama Yeshe founded the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (the FPMT), an organization that now has 158 centers, projects and services in 37 countries worldwide. See also, Lama Yeshe's Address to the FPMT Family, a presentation of Lama’s views about the FPMT's objectives, structure and function, that was the basis of this article.

Lama Yeshe giving a public talk at Kensington Town Hall, England, 1975. Nick Ribush is at the lower left.

I was standing on the steps of the Kopan Monastery 1 with Lama Yeshe when he gazed into the distance, as if surveying with his mind’s eye his already wide-ranging Dharma works, and said, “We need an organization to keep this together.”

It was November 1975 and we—Lama Yeshe, Lama Zopa Rinpoche and I—had just returned from a nine-month international tour that had taken us around the world from Nepal to Darjeeling and Dharamsala in India, to Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, America, England, Switzerland, Italy and back to India and Nepal again. This was the most extensive tour the Lamas were ever to undertake and one that resulted in the formation of four new Dharma centers. What Lama Yeshe wanted to “keep together” was a mushrooming collection of twelve centers and related activities, the external manifestation of his total dedication to spreading the Buddha’s teachings for the benefit of all beings.Lama Yeshe and Nick Ribush on the path to Namché Bazar, Nepal, May 1973. Photo: Lama Zopa Rinpoche.

Accordingly, Lama Yeshe summoned together nine of his senior students who were present at the time to discuss the coordination of this rapidly growing Dharma network. He called this group the Council for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (CPMT)—a mouthful that Lama (as everybody always called Lama Yeshe) insisted was necessary to spell out exactly what his (and our) purpose was, a kind of succinct mission statement. Later this name was extended to denote the body that comprises the directors of the centers and other divisions of Lama’s worldwide organization, which itself became known as the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT).2 We wanted to call it the Yeshe Foundation but of course, Lama would have none of that.

Lama Yeshe was always less than complimentary about Dharma students who eschewed organization and management. “Some hippies reject organization,” he said.

They can’t even organize their own lives let alone organize to benefit so many others. We have not landed on the moon; we are living on earth in the twentieth century. Everybody lives in a certain environment with a certain structure. We should too; otherwise we’ll get confused. Therefore I have put forward guidelines to show how our centers should be. In a place where hundreds of people are involved, we’re responsible for using their lives in a worthwhile way instead of wasting their time. So we have to organize.

Since those embryonic days, the FPMT has grown exponentially, without a business plan, an articulated vision or any kind of serious funding. It has developed organically, day-to-day, month-to-month, year-to-year, pretty much as Lama would have wanted it to. In other words, as Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche traveled the world (and Rinpoche alone after Lama passed away), more and more centers and related activities were seeded. As the FPMT has grown, the nature of the central organizing body has developed accordingly.

Of course, Lama Yeshe never took any credit for all this. He always put the worldwide spread of Tibetan Buddhism down to the power of the Dharma, not the charisma of the lama. But there’s no doubt that up until his death he was, after His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the most influential Tibetan Buddhist monk in the world. (And after Lama’s passing away, Lama Zopa Rinpoche has assumed that mantle.) For one thing, Lama Yeshe was totally fearless (one of the ten powers of a buddha). Despite his “breaking English,” as he called it, he would expound upon the most profound aspects of Buddhist philosophy to audiences of any size directly in English without the safety net of an interpreter anywhere in sight. He was able to get away with this because he communicated not only through language but also by facial expression, gesture, laughter, often raucous, and silence. In many ways, his teachings were more performance than lecture.

He was unconventional in many other ways as well. He rarely wore the traditional monks’ maroon robes completely correctly. Often they weren’t even maroon but closer to cerise or pink. And he didn’t mind wearing lay clothes if the situation demanded it. He always taught in robes but when traveling or relaxing he might be in trousers, swimming trunks or even a caftan. This, coupled with the fact that he spent most of his time with Westerners, made him the object of criticism among the conservative Tibetan community. Many doubted the purity of his motivation. They thought he was in it for the money. In fact, he owned almost nothing, and whatever funds did come to him he put into supporting the young Tibetan monks at Kopan Monastery. “My children,” he called them.

Lama Yeshe with a parrot, Java, 1979.He was also criticized for not completing his formal education by sitting for his geshe degree, the title monks get after twenty or thirty years of study in the great monasteries, which continued in India after the 1959 Chinese invasion of Tibet. He completed and excelled in his studies and was a renowned debater, but he knew that if he did his exams and became a geshe he would be obliged to stay at the monastery to teach successive generations of monks, which is what you were supposed to do. Instead, he became a “Tibetan hippie,” as he put it. “I dropped out,” he would always laugh.

Nevertheless, he fulfilled his monastic obligations in other ways. He raised money for the monastery himself and, as more and more FPMT centers came into being, sent geshes to the West as resident teachers, where they themselves were able to find sponsors for their students back in the monastery and raise funds to build more facilities for the increasing numbers of Tibetan monks fleeing Chinese oppression to continue their studies in India.

But despite Lama’s superficial unconventionality, he remained a pure monk with perfectly untarnished vows and, unlike some other prominent and influential Tibetan teachers in the West who had disrobed and were now laymen, attracted not the slightest breath of scandal because there was not the slightest cause for it.

Lama Yeshe was born in Tibet in 1935 and educated at the great Sera Monastic University in Lhasa. With the Chinese occupation, he escaped to India, where he spent the next eight years at the Buxaduar refugee camp in West Bengal. It was there he met Lama Zopa Rinpoche, who was born in Nepal in 1945, went to Tibet in 1956, and also escaped to India in 1959. In 1967 the Lamas met their first Western disciple, Zina Rachevsky, in Darjeeling and accompanied her to Nepal in 1968. Soon after their arrival they purchased a hilltop property about forty minutes’ walk from the great stupa of Boudhanath, where they established what was then called Ogmin Jangchub Choeling or the Nepalese Mahayana Centre Gompa, but is now simply known as Kopan Monastery.

Lama Yeshe with students at the Fourth Meditation Course, Kopan Monastery, Nepal, 1973.At Zina’s insistence Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche began teaching Westerners at Kopan around 1970 and gave the first of their now world famous annual meditation courses in 1971. There were about twenty people at each of the first two courses. The third, which was the first I attended, was held in the fall of 1972 and attracted more than fifty students. The fourth took place in the spring of 1973; one hundred and twenty people showed up. The fifth course, in the fall of 1973, saw two hundred. At the sixth, in the spring of 1974, there were over two hundred and fifty people, more than the small monastery could handle and some seventy people left before the end. Most of these people found out about Kopan by word of mouth; there was essentially no advertising. From the seventh course on—2011 was the forty-fourth—an average of two hundred students have been in attendance.

Kopan is the heart of the FPMT. It is where most of the early students met the Lamas, received teachings and became Buddhist. Many of these students returned to the West and, fired up by what they had heard, wanted to share it with their family and friends. So they started inviting Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche to the West, and in the summer of 1974 the Lamas made their first overseas trip, which took them to the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. During that time, two centers were created, one in Indiana, which closed a year later, and one in Australia - Chenrezig Institute for Wisdom Culture. Each center came into being because the local students asked Lama Yeshe if they could start a center and he said yes.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche and Lama Yeshe with babies and Italian students in Taceno, Italy, 1976. Photo: Peter Iseli.That is how the four centers (in New Zealand, the United States, England, and Italy) were established during the tour of 1975. And so it went. Every year the Lamas would travel to the West and new centers would be founded. When Lama Yeshe passed away in 1984 at the age of forty-nine, Lama Zopa Rinpoche took over the spiritual leadership of the FPMT and, under his guidance, the work that Lama Yeshe started has continued without a break. At this time the FPMT consists of about one hundred and sixty centers, projects, and services in some forty countries worldwide.

Over the years, Lama Yeshe gave many pep talks to his directors, each containing a wealth of good advice and fresh perspectives on the purpose of the FPMT and encouraging us to share the FPMT’s reality with others in a “clean, clear, dynamic way.” Perhaps the best way to present Lama’s views about organizing is to offer what Lama Yeshe himself said about the organization’s objectives, structure, and function in his final address to his center directors,3 at which time there were about forty-five FPMT entities.

The Purpose of the FPMT

Why have we established the FPMT? Why are we establishing these facilities all over the world? I think we are clean clear as to our aim—we want to lead all sentient beings to higher education. We are an organization that gives people the chance to receive higher education. We offer people what we have—the combined knowledge of Buddha’s teachings and the modern way of life. Our purpose is to share our experience of this.

We know that people are dissatisfied with worldly life, with the education system, and everything else. It is in the nature of the dualistic mind to be dissatisfied. So what we are trying to do is to help people discover their own totality and thus discover perfect satisfaction.

Now, the way we have evolved is not through you or me having said we want to do these things but through a natural process of development. Our organization has grown naturally, organically. It is not “Lama Yeshe wanted to do it.” I’ve never said that I want centers all over the world. Rather, I came into contact with students who then wanted to do something, who expressed the wish to share their experience with others, and put together groups in various countries to share and grow with others.

Personally, I think that’s fine. We should work for that. We are human beings; Buddhism helps us grow; therefore it is logical that we should work together to facilitate this kind of education. And it is not only we Lamas who are working for this. The centers’ resident geshes and the students are working too. Actually, it is you students who are instrumental in creating the facilities for Dharma to exist in the Western world. True. Of course, teachers help, but the most important thing is for the students to be well educated. That is why we exist.

When we started establishing centers there was no overall plan—they just popped up randomly all over the world like mushrooms, because of the evolutionary process I’ve just mentioned and the cooperative conditions. Now that all these centers do exist, we have to facilitate their development in a constructive, clean, clear way; otherwise everything will just get confused. We have to develop properly both internally and in accordance with our twentieth century environment. That’s why I’ve already put forward guidelines for how our centers should be—residential, country communities, city centers, monasteries, and so forth.

The foundation for a center’s existence is the five precepts—no killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, telling lies, or intoxicants. We base our other activities—education, administration, accounting, kitchen, housekeeping, grounds and so forth—on those. All this unified energy also depends on the kindness of our benefactors, the devoted people who give us donations. Thus we are responsible to utilize their donations in the wisest possible way, the way that brings maximum benefit to others. For this reason, in a place where hundreds of people are involved, we have to organize—to ensure that we use their energy in the most worthwhile way and not waste their time. Therefore, each of our centers and activities needs a general director—to direct and manage all the human and material resources at our disposal.

The Center Director

Lama Yeshe always placed great emphasis on the position of center director. Even now, FPMT center directors are appointed directly or indirectly by the organization’s spiritual director, Lama Zopa Rinpoche. Lama Yeshe talks about the role:

What does it mean to be a director? Take, for example, the job of director of one of our country centers. He or she is responsible for everything that happens in the center: education, legal matters, finance, business, community, kitchen, and so forth. Computer-like, the directors have to watch everything to make sure that it’s all going in the right direction. And if they see something wrong, it is their responsibility to correct it.

Of course, one person, the director, cannot do everything alone, but under his or her umbrella all center activities function. To control these, we need a good management committee and a good place for the committee to meet and discuss things. The director alone should not decide how things should be done. In committee meetings we decide upon projects for the forthcoming year and give various responsibilities to different people. It is then the director’s job to make sure that these people follow the committee’s instructions exactly. If they don’t, the director has the power and authority to correct them. He can even ask people who are disrupting the center’s harmony and proper functioning to leave.

Thus a center director takes incredible responsibility—for the center’s educational success, for its financial success. He has to think like a computer. The directorship is one of the most important aspects of the center. This doesn’t mean that other people do not have responsibility; that’s not true. They are responsible for the areas they have been given; they have their individual responsibilities. And it is not only the people who have been given jobs who have responsibility. Even students who come to a ten-day course, for example, have a certain degree of responsibility. They are working; they are expending energy for the Dharma; they are giving—to some extent they do have responsibility. As their hearts are touched they slowly, slowly take on more and more. We can see how we too have evolved in the same way.

Getting Organized

At first the FPMT was quite small. Lama Yeshe was relatively accessible, and many of the administrative decisions went through him. But as the organization grew, this became unworkable, so Lama established an administrative office to handle center business. It was first run by Peter Kedge, who traveled with the Lamas from 1976 through 1979, and basically, wherever he was, that’s where the office was. In 1980, Jacie Keeley took over, and the office was first at Kopan and then Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa, Italy.

Now, the way to bring the Dharma to the Western world is to bring the nuclear, essential aspect of the Dharma. Of course, you cannot separate the essence from the Eastern cultural trappings immediately: “This is culture; that isn’t.” However, what you should do is take the practical points of Dharma and shape them according to your own culture. In my opinion, you should be making a new kind of Dharma dependent on each different place and its social customs. Since we are Mahayanists, we have a broad view and don’t mind if Dharma takes different shapes. To bring Dharma to the West we should have a broad view.

Because we have so many centers, I can no longer direct them. Of course, at the beginning I had to direct the centers because the students were always asking, “Lama, what to do?” and we were small enough for me to always be in direct communication with them. But eventually we reached the point where I had to ask myself the question, “Am I a businessman, a Dharma teacher, or what?” Hundreds of letters were coming in from all over the world. I had to say, “What is this? Should I spend my life answering letters and running centers?” I thought it was wrong for me to spend my life in business because this was not the best way to serve my students. I thought that the most realistic thing to do to benefit them and make my life worthwhile was to go the middle way instead.

So I began to cut down on administrative work. I even wrote to all the centers telling them that they were responsible to make certain decisions, that I could not decide everything, and that it is too complicated and far too slow to have all the correspondence coming through Nepal. Therefore, I said we should have a central office as the center’s business point. Of course, I could still be consulted on important matters and could still make decisions on anything. I’m part of the Central Office; I can give my opinion. But it was not necessary to rely on me for everything. That’s why I established the Central Office [now called the FPMT International Office].4

However, to some extent, I am still responsible for whatever happens in our centers. I have not let go of all responsibility; I’m not saying, “Let whatever happens happen.” Therefore, I have to know something of what’s going on in the centers: what problems have arisen, how serious they are, what benefits the centers are offering and so forth. The point is that I am not going to let the centers go completely so that they become totally nonsensical, non-beneficial to others and just some kind of ego trip. I don’t believe that should happen. So I don’t want to close myself off. I like to look at and reflect upon what’s happening, but at the same time I don’t want to spend my whole life writing letters. Thus, taking the middle way meant setting up the Central Office, which has reduced my administrative workload and given me more time to spend teaching Dharma. I haven’t done this because I’m lazy…well perhaps I am lazy, but at least I have to pretend that I’m not!

Quite apart from the fact that I do not have time to do all this administrative work, there are many things to do with running a center that you can do far better than I. You can communicate with people from your own cultural background much better than can a simple Himalayan monk. All the legal and financial work—I can’t do that either. Also, there are many positions to be filled in a center; the right people have to be selected for the right job. You students should do these things yourselves.

So, because all this administrative work was taking up so much of my time, I passed many things on to the Central Office. There is a huge amount of this kind of work to do, that’s why the Central Office is important. It facilitates communication both between the centers and me and among the centers themselves. You see, we do have the human tendency to shut off from each other: “I don’t want you looking at me; I can see my own point of view, I don’t want to share it with you.” Each center has its own egocentric orientation: “We’re good enough; we don’t need to take the best of other cultures.” This is wrong. We have reached our present state of existence through a process of evolution. Some older centers have had good experiences and have learned how to do things well. Doing things well is not simply an intellectual exercise but something that comes from acting every day and learning how to do things until you can do them automatically. Thus it is good that the Central Office has a pool of collective experience so that all our centers can share in it and help reinforce each other.

We have to be able to focus and integrate our energy and store information in a clean, clear way so that it can be readily accessed. We should make a structure so that we all know what information is there and how to get it. Without a proper structure, we’ll go bananas! Even a couple living together needs to be organized so that their house is clean, there is the food they need and so on. In the centers, we are involved in hundreds of people’s lives; for some reason Dharma has brought all these people together. We are responsible to ensure that we do not waste people’s energy; therefore we have to get ourselves together. This is why organization is very important.

Wisdom Culture: Working for Others

Lama Yeshe included “for Wisdom Culture” in the names of several of his early centers—Chenrezig Institute for Wisdom Culture, Publications for Wisdom Culture (now Wisdom Publications),5 Vajrapani Institute for Wisdom Culture and so forth. This was to emphasize the fact that we were supposed to be different from—in fact the opposite of—worldly, mundane or, as Lama put it, samsaric culture. We were to operate from a foundation of wisdom and compassion, not ignorance and selfishness. From the Mahayana point of view, that meant dedicating our body, speech and mind entirely to the welfare and happiness of others, as Lama himself had. And not just for the present generation but far into the future, for countless generations to come.

Let’s say, for example, that one of the older students and I have started a center. We’re impermanent; we’re going to die. What happens when we’re dead? We established the center; it has never been properly organized; should it die too? No, of course not. Even though our very bones have disappeared, the center should continue to function. But for people to be able to carry on the center’s work, there should be clean, clear directions as to why it was established. If things are set up right, religious philosophies can carry on for generations and generations. We know this to be an historical fact.

If you think about it, from the point of view of culture, Buddhism is completely culture oriented; it is a complete culture, or way of life, from birth to death. Therefore we are dealing with a very serious thing; we are giving people something that they should take very seriously in their lives. It is not just a one-week or one-month trip. We are offering something that utilizes Buddha’s method and wisdom in the achievement of everlasting satisfaction. That everlasting peace and happiness is what we are working for.

So we have a very important job; it is not just one person’s thing. For that reason I have to say openly to all our center directors that they should not feel they are working for Lama Yeshe—that’s too small. I am just a simple monk; you are working for me? One atom? No—you are working for something much bigger than just one man. You are working for all mother sentient beings. That is important. You should think, “Even if I die, I am doing all of these things for the sake and benefit of all other mother sentient beings.” That is why it is so important to us to have a clean, clear structure and direction.

For me, this is very important. I don’t believe that I am the principal worker and I do everything. No. I believe what Lama Je Tsongkhapa6 says in his lam-rim:7 “All your success comes from other sentient beings.” Thus, other sentient beings are capable of continuing our work, and what will enable them to do so will be having a clean, clear direction—not a temporary, Mickey Mouse direction, but a clean, clear one. Our aim then is to have a perfectly delineated structure so that even when we are all dead, still, as we wished, our Dharma centers will be able to carry on their work. I believe that human beings are very special. They are intelligent. If we write an intelligent constitution, record an intelligent system of direction, other human beings will be able to keep it going. That is why we have to have a structure.

Now, as far as our structure is concerned, it is simple and natural; a structure that could have been thought out by primitive people, not sophisticated twentieth century ones. I am not sophisticated; I have never been educated in organizational structure or learned about it. I am very simple. Our thing has grown naturally. Because we have been giving teachings continuously, the number of students has grown. Those interested students have then returned from Nepal to their homes all over the world and started centers in various places. Some of those have become directors and given different job responsibilities to others interested in helping them.

The Central Office

How is the Central Office constituted? Each of our centers is a part of the foundation of the main office; the office manifests from that base. Do you see the evolution? We give teachings; all the original directors manifest from there; from the directors, energy for new centers builds up; more and more new centers come. Like that, there has been a logical evolution, development from an existing foundation. The directors have built up the entity of the foundation and the Central Office, we communicate, and this is the way the structure develops. To my mind, it is not a sophisticated, egotistical structure but one that has occurred and grown naturally. Now all these directors—administrative, spiritual, business—are the principal nuclear resource, and they make up the Central Office, they are the directorate. They meet and put forward ideas. But who keeps the Central Office going? These twenty or more directors cannot remain in the one location, meeting and working together all the time, all their lives. They have to go back to their own places. They have their own business to attend to. So who does all these things? The Director of the Central Office.

Say that a CPMT meeting has decided that all centers should undertake a certain project because of its obvious benefit to the centers, the FPMT, or whatever. It is then the Central Office’s responsibility to ensure that all the centers have all the information and everything else they need to carry out the project. On the other hand, some good idea may not be practical. If I have to go to each center to explain why something should not be done it’s an incredible hassle. I can save time, life and energy by simply telling the Central Office my ideas, which can then be circulated to all the relevant places. This is simple and useful, and it’s the Central Office director’s job to see that all this gets done. We need a clean, clear system with which everybody is comfortable.

Therefore when you, the FMPT directors, come to a final decision that is solid, to be implemented, or actualized, in our centers, the Central Office has the authority to make sure it happens. The Office director cannot direct a center to do something that was not generally agreed, “Because I say so.” “I say so” is not authority enough. The thing is, we get an idea, a meeting of the FMPT directors (CPMT) agrees, and the Central Office ensures that it can be and is implemented. I think that this is the correct way to go about things.

Ordination group with Lama Yeshe, 1976.Building Communities

One day in the mid-70s I was having lunch with Lama Yeshe in the restaurant of the Hotel Crystal in Kathmandu. At one point Lama grabbed a paper napkin and a pen and drew his ideal Dharma community. He drew a perimeter, the boundaries of the property. In the middle he placed the gompa, or meditation hall; its upper floor would house the resident teacher (a Tibetan geshe) and his interpreter. Nearby were scattered huts for monks and nuns. Around the edge were houses for lay families. At the gate was a shop. Lama also said that there should be a workshop somewhere so that a moneymaking business could be set up to help support the center. It was a totally integrated community, drawn almost as a mandala. (The word mandala has different meanings but in this sense it means an idealized vision of the world or universe. In tantric practice the meditational deity is at the center with other beings and buildings around. Here at the center of Lama’s FPMT center mandala the meditation hall and the teachers were central with other students and buildings spreading out from that.) I wish I’d kept that napkin.

Anyway, our aim is clear; it is to educate people. Each center should have strong emphasis on education. The education system and program are essential for us to be successful. Why are we building communities? Because we have no home? No! We are not refugees; we have not started centers to house refugees. Thus it is important for each center to have a strong educational program and a spiritual director [now termed spiritual program coordinator] to conduct it. This is an essential part of our structure and must be there.

But I am not going to keep telling you things that you know already. Still, it is important that I clarify the reason for our existence and what we are doing. It is important work; we are not joking. We are real. Also, we are confident. I have great confidence in my involvement with Western people; I believe in them. I think that there are things that we can understand in common. We understand each other; therefore we can work together.

Also, it is important for directors to have a great vision; they should not neglect their center’s growth. They should have a very broad view in order to be open to people. In many of our centers we find that already the facilities are too small. Of course, to build adequate facilities takes time and energy; but we should have a broad open view: “We would like to have things this way, without limitations….” Having a broad view is not forcing any issue but simply saying that if we have the opportunity to do various things, we’ll do them. You never know when somebody might come up to you and say, “I’d like to do something beneficial with my money.” At that time you can reply, “Well we have this project ready to develop,” and show that person your plans. If, however, you feel suffocated with what you already have and don’t have any vision of how to expand, you can’t show potential benefactors anything. Therefore you should plan ahead with great vision and have everything ready to show people how you want to expand and improve your facilities.

For example, we have always said that our centers should be living communities. But through experience we have discovered that we cannot yet be self-sufficient. To be a self-sufficient community in the Western sense requires an immense input of energy. Let’s say that the twenty of us here are a community. Can you imagine what we need in order to live according to this society’s standards? We have to live in reasonable comfort. That means we have to have cars, a certain amount of regular income for living expenses and so forth. So how do we do it? From the realistic point of view, it is an incredible job to make each center into a self-sufficient community. You know how much energy you have to take from the outside world.

My observation is that our centers are not really run professionally as self-sufficient communities. Even though we call ourselves communities, from the Western standard of living point of view, other communities are much more comfortable than our Buddhist ones. One of the problems that we are beginning to experience is that of overcrowding. This is not right—we must create the right conditions for people who live in or visit our centers, be they monks or nuns, single laypeople or parents and their children. We are in trouble because we are not doing things according to the Western way of life. Therefore we should take a look at where we are and where we should go from here.

Lama Yeshe at a family gathering at Vajrapani Institute, California, 1983. Photo: Carol Royce-Wilder.Community life should be normal. Parents and children should be accommodated in our centers so that they can live as normally as possible. Our experience is that they are not; we should learn from that. Of course, our students have big hearts and try their best. It is all a part of our evolution, not something that we have done wrong. But now we have reached a certain point and learned something. Our Dharma family has grown and we need to improve the living conditions at our centers to accommodate everybody. There should be a section where families can live normal family lives; there should be part of the center where strict retreat-type courses can be conducted; there should be monastic conditions for the monks and nuns. Everybody should be normal and comfortable in his or her own way of life and everybody should have something constructive to do.

So, not only do we need a clear structure for our international organization; there should be one within each center too. As I said before, each center needs a director and a management committee. The committee consists of heads of the important sections of the center: the resident geshe, the spiritual program director, the business manager etc. and, of course, the director. Thus the committee is not elected but made up of those who hold positions of responsibility in the center. These people meet regularly and discuss how things should be done on a day-to-day basis. When they have agreed, they call the residents together and inform them of what they have decided. If the residents agree, well and good, but the committee does have to check with them. Thus the center residents are consulted and have a say in decisions that affect them.

In general, this is the way we do it, but sometimes it might be hard for everyone to understand which way the director is going. If they don’t understand, perhaps he can just let go. But most of the time this is the way we work: there is a committee, it makes decisions, we see how the residents feel about them, and if they don’t like the decisions, we can change them. If they agree, then whatever it is, it can be done. In this case, it is the director’s responsibility to see that it happens; he has to make sure that the committee’s decisions are implemented in much the same way that the Central Office director has to see that the CPMT’s decisions are carried out.

However, with respect to major decisions within a center, even the director and committee cannot decide alone. For example, say all the center’s buildings have to be torn down and rebuilt. I don’t think they should make a decision of that magnitude without consulting the other FMPT directors. It is too risky to have just a few people deciding whether or not to demolish an entire center. Similarly, say a center receives a donation of a million dollars. We should definitely call a meeting of all the other directors to decide on how that money should be spent. The director and the committee alone cannot make their own immediate decision, even though they know the local situation much better than all the other directors. The director of that center should put forward her proposals for the others to comment on.

In the same way, there is a limit to the decisions that the Central Office director can make. Above a certain level the other directors should be consulted. Then the Central Office makes sure that what has been agreed to gets done. Also, the Central Office helps me to get information about the centers and passes my messages through to the centers. My mail comes through the Central Office, too. The Central Office is a tool that helps me implement ideas I might have for ways to improve the centers. In this way and the ways already mentioned, the centers benefit from the Central Office. Thus it is important for them to support the Central Office through annual contributions.

Because we are doing constructive things with long-term plans, we should not expect to be able to judge the benefits of the contributions made to the Central Office on any short-term effects: “This year we gave x dollars to the Central Office but received only y amount of benefit.” The benefit you receive may not necessarily become apparent in this material life. We are planting seeds and it takes time for them to grow. Therefore, as long as you can understand why your center puts money into the Central Office, you can analyze what is going on in the present situation and what the short- and long-term benefits for the entire FPMT mandala are, and check all that against the needs of our growing organization. Only then can you judge whether or not your contribution has been worthwhile. Remember—to bring Dharma to the West we have to have a broad view.

The FPMT After Lama Yeshe

Lama Yeshe meditating by the ocean, Sicily, 1983. Photo: Jacie Keeley.When Lama Yeshe passed away in 1984 there were about fifty centers, projects and services around the world and the Central Office was located at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa in Italy with a staff of two. About a year before his death, Lama Yeshe had created a board of directors, whose purpose was, he said, “To look after the administrative aspects of the FPMT when I die so that Lama Zopa Rinpoche can just focus on teaching.” There were twelve members; I was one of them. The first meeting the FPMT board actually had was at Lama Yeshe’s cremation in California in March 1984, where the main order of business was to request Lama Zopa Rinpoche to take over. He suggested we ask some of his other teachers, such as HH Zong Rinpoche, Geshe Sopa and Geshe Rabten, but unsurprisingly they were not interested and said Rinpoche should do it, so he eventually accepted our request.

As mentioned above, since that time Rinpoche has not only continued teaching extensively but has also totally immersed himself in the administration of the organization. The board, whose composition has often changed, has continued to meet from one to four times a year, and CPMT meetings are held irregularly, averaging one every three years.

Much of the recent development of the FPMT has been in the area of social service. Rinpoche has established projects such as an eye clinic in Amdo, Tibet; a teachers’ fund to support senior Tibetan teachers who hold and transmit the Gelug lineage; an education and scholarship fund; a food fund to support the 2,600 refugee monks at Sera-je Monastic University in south India, which has offered more than 15 million vegetarian meals over the years; an animal liberation project; and many more general Dharma projects such as prayer wheel and stupa funds, a text translation fund, various puja funds and so forth.

Publishing is also a large part of the FPMT. In 1975 I co-founded Wisdom Publications with Lama Yeshe at Kopan Monastery in Nepal. In 1978 Wisdom moved to England and in 1989 to Boston, where it is now the largest and most highly respected general Buddhist publisher in the world, having published more than three hundred titles from all Buddhist traditions. Over the years several non-English-language FPMT publishers have also come into being, such as Ediciones Dharma, Spain; Chiara Luce Edizioni, Italy; Editions Vajra Yogini, France; Diamant Verlag, Germany; Maitreya Publishing, Holland; and Bodhicitta Publishing, Taiwan.

In 1996 I left Wisdom Publications to establish the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive (LYWA), to focus on the teachings of Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche. Since that time we have digitized over 10,000 hours of audiocassette recordings and, since the digital age began, added several thousand more hours of Rinpoche’s teachings to this collection. Much of this material has been transcribed and thousands of pages published on the LYWA website, where it and hundreds of hours of audio are freely available. The Archive has also published some 600,000 copies of books for free distribution.

For more than fifteen years the FPMT has published Mandala Magazine,8 which is now distributed worldwide quarterly through subscription and the organization’s network of centers. Six recent issued serialized in detail the history and development of the FPMT, which would greatly amplify to interested readers what I have written here.

Another significant development has been the creation of FPMT Education Services, which has become a major publisher in its own right, putting out the hundreds of prayers, practices and related materials required by centers and students, both FPMT and other. Education Services have also created ten different study programs, both in-center and home study, covering all stages of student development, from introductory to advanced, the latter being a remarkable seven-year masters program.

In 2006 the FPMT established Maitripa College in Portland, Oregon. Maitripa recently received state accreditation and is well on the way to becoming a fully functioning accredited university.

The FPMT also strongly encourages and tries to support Western monastic communities. Many Western Buddhist organizations tend to downplay the importance of practitioners’ ordination as monks and nuns but the FPMT considers the ordained Sangha as the lifeblood of the tradition. The main monastic center is Nalanda Monastery in France, which was established by Lama Yeshe in 1981, but there are several smaller monastic communities around the world. FPMT monastics belong to the International Mahayana Institute, the Sangha organization Lama Yeshe created in 1973.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche also stresses the importance of holy objects such as statues and stupas, the main activity in this arena being the spectacular five-hundred-foot Maitreya Buddha state, which is to be built in Kushinagar, India, the site of the Buddha’s death, and the Great Stupa of Universal Compassion in Bendigo, Australia, which will be a replica of the famous Gyantse Kumbum in Tibet.

All in all, I think the FPMT is probably the largest Tibetan Buddhist organization in the world, with about 160 centers, projects and services in some forty countries around the world. Its main focus is preserving the tradition of the great fourteenth century Tibetan master Lama Je Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelug tradition, the Dalai Lama’s branch of Tibetan Buddhism. From the beginning, Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche have carried out their Dharma work in close consultation with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. His Holiness has often praised Rinpoche’s vast activities in public. In 2010, the president of Mongolia also honored Rinpoche when he awarded Rinpoche that country’s highest civilian honor, the Polar Star, which is rarely given to foreigners, for his efforts in restoring Buddhism in Mongolia.

Since the focus of this article has been the early development of the FPMT, I have written more about Lama Yeshe than Lama Zopa Rinpoche, but it would probably be fair to say that over the decades Rinpoche’s influence has been even greater than that of Lama.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche and Lama Yeshe, Lake Arrowhead, 1975. Photo: Carol Royce-Wilder.Conclusion

As I said at the beginning, the FPMT has developed in these various ways without an articulated plan. It has grown organically out of the pure motivation of its founders—Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche—and the needs of seekers around the world. As I look back on these four decades of Dharma activity I can’t help but wonder in some amazement how this could have happened.

Actually, it all comes down to the leadership of our teachers. The way they have led is not only by words but also through example. Personally, I experienced such great benefit from my first meditation course and derived such great inspiration from Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche that I wanted to be like them and benefit others in the way that they had benefited me. I think most of us who’ve been actively involved in the organization over all this time have done what we’ve done for the same reasons.

The lamas studied, meditated and taught. They were monks. In the early days, many of us also got ordained, studied, meditated and taught. The lamas traveled the world establishing centers. Many of us went to those centers to further the lamas’ work. They led; we followed.

There was a good deal of faith involved, too. Not blind faith but faith based on experience and reason. In my own case, after the 1972 Kopan meditation course had finished, I remember saying to Anila Ann McNeil, the nun who was assisting Lama Zopa Rinpoche, “I really want to do Dharma but how will I support myself? I don’t have that much money.” She looked at me as if I was a bit simple and replied, “Oh, if you give yourself to the Dharma, the Dharma will always look after you.” I thought, “Oh, OK,” and the course of my life was set. So far, so good.


1 Just outside of Boudhanath, Kathmandu, Nepal. [Return to text]

2 The FPMT is now headquartered in Portland, Oregon, USA. [Return to text]

3 At Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa, Pomaia, Italy, January 1983. [Return to text]

4 Lama pronounced it “senchal” office, which sometimes made us think, “Is he saying central or essential?” [Return to text]

5 Wisdom is now located in Boston, Massachusetts. [Return to text]

6 Lama Je Tsongkhapa (1357–1419) founded the Gelug tradition, the most recent of the four main lineages of Tibetan Buddhism. [Return to text]

7 The lam-rim (stages of the path) is a presentation of all the teachings of the Buddha in a step-by-step arrangement that makes it easy to understand and practice the entire path to enlightenment. The first lam-rim text was written by Atisha (980–1052), the great Indian scholar who reestablished pure Buddhism in Tibet in the eleventh century after a period of decline.[Return to text]

8Mandala eZine is also published quarterly as an online complement to the print edition. [Return to text]