Postcard 50 from Robina: Padova, Italy, Sunday, January 25, 2015

2015-01-25 11:00:00

From Florence to Treviso, Italy. Photo Google Maps

On to Italy for the first three weeks of January. I hadn’t been here for ten years at least, I’d say. First to Pomaia, Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa, one of the first FPMT centers in Europe and where Lama Yeshe’s vision of serious study programs for non-Tibetans continues with the seven-year Master’s Program of Buddhist Studies.

My fondest memories of this place are from 1982, when His Holiness was here for ten days, giving us the empowerment into Gyalwa Gyatso, the Highest Yoga Tantra aspect of the Compassion Buddha, plus teachings.

My dear friend Englishman Harvey Horrocks was director at the time. Lama had sent him here the year before, from the UK where he had been the founding director of Lama’s center in the north of England, Manjushri Institute, where we had worked together for five years. To prepare for the influx of 700+ people, many of them staying at the institute during the teachings of His Holiness, Harvey had built extra dormitory space and made many other changes.

I remember that visit well because I was one of the ten people Lama had asked to act as security guards for His Holiness during six weeks of his tour of Europe, which also included Spain and France. I talked about this in Postcard 8 and Postcard 12.

Harvey Horrocks ran the institute when His Holiness was there, in 1982.

Harvey and I first started working together at Manjushri Institute, where Lama had moved all his main activities from Kopan, in 1978. The sangha were here, and Wisdom Publications, and it was here, too, that Lama started his serious study programs: then we called it the Geshe Program. For me it was like yesterday. I’d first heard the Buddhist teachings from Lama and Rinpoche in 1976, at Chenrezig in Australia: a one-month intensive lam-rim course with Rinpoche followed by another month of Chenrezig guru yoga with Lama, but it wasn’t until I started studying the Geshe Program that Buddhism fell into place for me. I happily sat through Rinpoche’s lam-rim teachings – I knew I’d found what I’d wanted – but I couldn’t make head or tail of it. “Where’s the Buddhism?” I’d ask myself as I heard these arcane medieval concepts. Chenrezig guru yoga was weird and very wonderful, and I didn’t really understand it, either.

Lama Yeshe having fun at a festival at his Manjushri Institute, 1980, with Geshe Tegchog to the right, our Geshe Programme lama.

But when I first sat down to listen to Geshe Jampa Tegchog’s teachings on “Collected Topics” – Dura in Tibetan – the first text the young monks and nuns study in the Gelug monasteries, I was in heaven. I realized that this was what my mind had been missing practically since I was born; that’s how it felt. Not kidding. During the daytime I’d work for Wisdom and couldn’t wait for our 90-minute late-afternoon class in Geshe-la’s room every weekday. I could focus effortlessly, I took perfect notes, and I’d memorize everything. I might have been involved in all the dramas of producing books, deadlines and so on, but the moment I walked into Geshe-la’s room it’d all drop away. I couldn’t get enough of it! This and the other texts I studied – Buddhist Tenets, Mind and Awareness, Buddhist Logic – gave me the foundation of everything I’ve heard and studied and edited since. I can’t imagine not having done those two years.

With fellow Geshe Program students Pende, Neil, and Olga, Manjushri Institute, 1980.

Geshe-la would tell us that “twenty-five percent of what we learn comes from listening and seventy-five percent comes from debate.” Every evening straight after class that’s what we’d do: get into pairs and go into deep, logical discussion, back and forth – our ad hoc version of debate – testing, analyzing everything we’d heard at that class. Sometimes, in preparation for our exams – which I did well in, almost for the first time in my life! – I’d spend eight hours a day in intense discussion with a fellow student, analyzing the meanings, checking the definitions, finding the logic in it all.

Logic. If we look superficially at the meaning of “spiritual” it feels almost contradictory to talk about logic. But when we become our own therapist, as Lama puts it, the more we understand Buddha’s view of the mind, of how the deluded, neurotic states such as attachment, anger, jealousy, pride, low self-esteem and the rest are liars, delusions, the more we understand that to counteract them we need to use logic to argue with their absurd nonsense, deconstructing the elaborate made-up stories that support ego and cause suffering and reconstructing our minds to be in sync with facts, with reality – wisdom.

My biggest regret in life is that I haven’t studied the teachings deeply enough, like during those two years. I was almost envious of my dear friend and fellow-student from those days, Ven. Sangye Khadro, who’s in the final stages of her involvement in the most recent Master’s Program, doing her yearlong solitary retreat after seven years of study. I remember thinking, Perhaps I should sign up for the next one. . . Then I visualized myself graduating at the age of 78, so I’ve decided I’ll wait till next life!

With Genova center director Stefano and prison project team, after a visit to this prison on Genova.

So, back to Pomaia 2015. I was there for a week – except for a quick mid-week roundtrip to the Florence center. I stayed in one of the fifty-plus little cabins that the institute shipped from Finland years ago to accommodate their first intake of Master’s Program students. Very comfortable.

One of the good things about the center is their shop and cafe: I wish all the centers had them!

With the prison project team in Milan.

The prisoner artist and his art, the Eight Auspicious Signs.

The second week was mainly in Genova, with a trip to Milano to meet with the wonderful prison project team there. An admirable group: going into various prisons and teaching. The highlight was an all-day retreat in prison.

The prisoners who came, many of them having studied with the visiting teachers, made pizzas and a cake for us.

The final week in Italy was mainly at Tara Cittamani in Padova, with an evening visit to the center in Treviso, one of the first FPMT centers in Italy. I made sure in both Genova and Padova that I enjoyed the inner city streets, the cafes, the shops, and the churches. I love the churches.

Cittamani Tara director Marco, with my kind hosts in Padova.

Chocolate shoes, somewhere in Italy!

Now on to Dubai for a few days, then to another pilgrimage for the rest of February.

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