The Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition

The following article is from the Autumn, 1988 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

The Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition is an international network of nearly 50 Buddhist colleges, urban centers, monasteries, meditation and retreat communities founded by Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche. The intent of FPMT is to provide channels for integrating the teachings of the Buddha into Western culture; to bring within twentieth-century reach traditional, well-investigated and effective methods that are a basis for a more meaningful approach to modern life.

The FPMT offers opportunities for people of varied inclinations. For some, the centers and communities are a complete way of life where the practice of meditation and the pursuit of precise intellectual understanding is balanced with work or community service. For others, work is the main activity, carried out in the fields of education, publishing, printing, film, center construction and renovation, farming and gardening, or within various FPMT business enterprises.

There is an astonishing array of programs and facilitiesfrom the Nalanda Monastery 7-year Geshe degree program to the Sewa Samiti Leprosy Center in New Delhi; from the International Medical Program linking different medical traditions (in Nepal) to Wisdom Publications; from the Root Institute for Culture and Religion, a facility under construction for pilgrims in Bodhgaya, India, to the Universal Education Association based in Pomaia, Italy, with branches world wide.

How did all this come about? Where did the inspiration and energy for so much beneficial activity come from? The answer is very simple. To those who knew Lama Yeshe (who passed away in 1984), the growth of the FPMT is no mystery. As Jonathan Landaw, one of his early students, says, His warmth and humor seemed inexhaustible and his devotion to others and to the teachings of the Dharma never faltered, even when his health was apparently failing. It seemed as though he was willing to do anything to help people overcome their limitations and un-happiness and experience their higher selves. . . . No matter what subject he was discussing, he made sure that all of his listeners had something personal and practical to take away with them. Although his methods were often unconventional, his teachings were always within the bounds of tradition and this is due in part to the rigorous training he received in Tibet before 1959 and in India thereafter.

Lama Yeshe was born in Tibet in 1935 not far from Lhasa. He was recognized as the incarnation of the learned Abbess of Chi-me Lung Gompa, home for about 100 nuns of the Gelug tradition. From a very early age he expressed the desire to lead a religious life. Whenever a monk would visit his home he would beg to leave with him and join his monastery. Finally, when he was 6 years old, he received his parents' permission to join Sera Je College. He was ordained as a novice monk at the age of 8 and received teachings on the lam rim graduated path to enlightenment from Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche, the junior tutor of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He also received many tantric initiations and discourses from both the Junior Tutor and the Senior Tutor, Kyabje Ling Rinpoche, as well as from Drag-ri Dorje Change Rinpoche, Song Rinpoche, Lhatzun Dorje Chang Rinpoche, and many other great gurus and meditation masters. He also studied the famous Six Yogas of Naropa, following a commentary based on the personal experiences of Lama Tsongkhapa.

This phase of his education came to an end in 1959 when he was 25 years old. As Lama Yeshe himself said, In that year the Chinese kindly told us that it was time to leave Tibet and meet the outside world. Escaping through Bhutan, he eventually reached Northeast India where he met up with many other Tibetan refugees. At the Tibetan settlement camp of Buxaduar he continued his studies, and, at the age of 28, received full ordination from Kyabje Ling Rinpoche.

His heart disciple, Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, was born in 1947 in the village of Thami in the Solo Khumbu region of Nepal near Mount Everest. From the house where he was born, he could look up the mountainside and see Lawudo, where the cave of the late Lawudo Lama was situated. While his predecessor had belonged to the Sakya tradition, the Lawudo Lama himself had been a great master of the complete tantric teachings of the Nyingma tradition. For the last 20 years of his life he lived in his cave, attended by his wife and two children. He spent all of his time either meditating or giving teachings and spiritual advice to the people of the region. His energy on behalf of all beings was inexhaustible and it is said that in his later years he passed completely beyond the need for sleep.

From the time he was able to crawl, Zopa Rinpoche would spend most of his time trying to climb the steep path leading to the cave of this deceased lama. Finally, when he was old enough to speak, he declared that the cave was his and that he was the incarnation of the Lawudo Lama. He further insisted that his only desire was to lead a life of meditation. When he was 4 or 5 years old, his claim to be an incarnate lama was subjected to public examination by Ngawang Samden, a Nyingma master meditator who lived nearby. When the young boy was repeatedly able to identify possessions belonging to the Lawudo Lama he was formally declared to be the rightful incarnation and received the full investiture of the Nyingma lineage. Later he received the tantric initiations of this tradition from the head Lama at Thampi gompa, known affectionately as Gaga (grandfather) Lama.

While still a young boy, Zopa Rinpoche was taken on his uncle's back for a pilgrimage to Tibet. When he arrived north of Sikkim at the Dung-kar Monastery of Domo Geshe Rinpoche, he startled his uncle by declaring that he had no intention of returning home with him. Rather, he wanted to stay at this monastery and devote his life to studying and practicing the Dharma. And so he did. His education would have continued at Sera Je in Lhasa, but his plans were interrupted in 1959. Eventually he found his way to Buxaduar where he first became the disciple of Geshe Rabten and then of Lama Yeshe.

Although the FPMT was not legally incorporated until 1975, its beginnings go back to 1965 when Lama Yeshe and Zopa Rinpoche met Zina Rachevsky, a young American woman, in Darjeeling. A strong friendship developed and the Lamas spent nearly a year teaching her at home before Zina had to leave Darjeeling for Ceylon. She then wrote many letters to His Holiness the Dalai Lama entreating him to permit the Lamas to join her. When permission was granted she returned to India and the three of them visited the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala. There Zina was ordained as a novice nun. In 1967 the two Lamas and their disciple left India, not for Ceylon as originally planned, but for Nepal.

Zina purchased land at the top of Kopan hill overlooking the beautiful Kathmandu valley and the Lamas founded the Nepal Mahayana Gompa Centre in 1969. When the first meditation course was given there in 1971, it was attended by about 20 students. By the Autumn of 1974, 14 Western monks and nuns had been ordained and interest in the seventh lam rim course was so great that attendance had to be limited to 200 meditators.

In 1972 the Lamas established Tushita Retreat Center in a rambling house perched on the side of the mountain above His Holiness the Dalai Lama's residence in Dharamsala. Many serious students from Kopan, the Tibetan Library classes and other centers have come to Tushita for teachings, initiations and retreats over the years.

Westerners are not the only ones who have benefitted from the Lamas' compassionate activities. Lama Zopa Rinpoche's predecessor had been asked by the Tibetan and Sherpa people of Solo Khumbu to build a monastery near the site of his meditation cave. In 1971 Lama Zopa Rinpoche honored the commitment made by his predecessor by building a monastic schoolthe Mount Everest Centre for Buddhist Studies. The School was later moved to Kopan monastery and today there are 70 (mosdy Sherpa) monks receiving a closely supervised monastic education that includes traditional Buddhist studies, as well as classes in Nepali, English, Tibetan, mathematics and art.

In 1974, the Lamas were invited to make an 8 month-tour of the U.S., Australia and New Zealand. As they travelled around giving public talks and meeting with old and new students, they saw a tremendous and growing interest in Buddhism in the West. Many students had returned from Kopan to their homelands feeling the need to set up their own local Dharma centers. By the end of the tour in 1975, 12 centers had been started, 9 of them in Western countries. It was at this point that Lama Yeshe brought together some of his senior students to discuss the coordination of this rapidly growing Dharma network. This group, the Council for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, was eventually expanded to include the directors of the centers and other departments, and the FPMT came into formal existence. Briefly, the FPMT was set up to function democratically. Most of its centers are established as public charities according to the laws of their particular countries, with the election or appointment of office-bearers as prescribed by their constitutions, and all active members have a voice in *he decisions that effect them.

Lama Yeshe passed away in 1984. On February 12, 1985 a boy was born to a Spanish couple with whom, as Lama Yeshe himself had said years before, he shared a special relationship. The child was named Osel, meaning Clear Light, and by the time he was 14 months old he had been recognized as the reincarnation of Lama Yeshe, not only by Zopa Rinpoche, but by H.H. the Dalai Lama as well. At the time of the formal recognition, the Dalai Lama declared that when young Osel was old enough to speak well he would give unmistakable indications that he was indeed the true tulku of Lama Yeshe. Since then, people from all over the world have had the chance to meet the young Lama Osel and already he has displayed to many of them remarkable signs, such as recognizing people from his former life. Lama Osel was enthroned, amid extensive media attention in Dharamsala on March 17, 1987.

Vajrapani Institute in Boulder Creek, CA (408/338-9540) is hosting Lama Zopa Rinpoche, who will be giving a Chakrasamvara initiation and commentary from October 8-31.

Back to all Snow Lion Articles