Sarnath International Nyingma Institute was formally dedicated on December 13, 2013, as it welcomed a sacred sapling grown from the Bodhi Tree in Sri Lanka, a direct descendant of the tree that sheltered the Buddha at Bodh Gaya. Now, a decade later, I would like to celebrate SINI’s 10th anniversary by offering these reflections on this auspicious occasion.
After the Buddha became enlightened, his very first students were the gods who witnessed his great accomplishment. Deeply moved, they asked him: “What is this treasure of wisdom you received, after six years of dedicated practice? What understanding, missing in us, is present in you? Please share what you have learned.” In this way, they beseeched him to transmit his knowledge to sentient beings. After being asked three times by the gods, the Tathāgata agreed, and journeyed to Sarnath. A place of historical prominence even before the time of the Buddha Śākyamuni, Sarnath thus holds deep significance for all Buddhist traditions; its famous Dhamekh Stupa is said to mark the site where the Buddha gave the first teachings to his first human disciples.
The teachings the Great Being gave at Sarnath can be said to constitute the very roots of the Buddhadharma.
The teachings the Great Being gave at Sarnath can be said to constitute the very roots of the Buddhadharma. They are easy to understand, because human beings, at that time and this, know well what it is to suffer. But the Buddha also understood the subtle and profound causes of suffering, deeply intertwined with all the myriad manifestations of body, mind, and what we could call spirit, or communication, or language. These are the points of transformation that he introduced to his first students, teachings which enabled them to become realized arhats.
After his Parinirvāṇa, the Buddha’s teachings continued to be taught at Sarnath; the voices of some of the first and finest teachers of the Sangha resounded here, transmitting to the world the Four Noble Truths of suffering, its cause, its cessation, and the Eightfold Path: virtuous view, virtuous thought, virtuous speech, virtuous conduct, virtuous livelihood, virtuous effort, virtuous mindfulness, and virtuous meditative concentration, or samādhi.
The Buddha taught his students the conduct befitting a Sangha, the wise expressions of body, mind, energy, and behavior, and the best ways to make use of our temporary, precious appearance in the world as human beings. This guidance was gradually codified into the Vinaya teachings that ease the pathway to the full embodiment of the Buddhadharma. As they followed this path, the Buddha’s first students nurtured the growth of a great Sangha.
Through this process, Buddhism gradually developed throughout all India and in many other countries, until today, all around the world, the Dharma is acknowledged as a path that generates matchless compassion and wisdom, qualities that are widely recognized as holding the essence of the highest human knowledge.
It is critically important to practice, preserve and protect the Dharma, and its survival is intimately linked with the continuity of the Sangha. In order for the Sangha to exist, the Dharma must be studied well; in order for the Dharma to exist, the Sangha needs to be protected. When Dharma and Sangha both thrive together, the world knows real peace; as sentient beings discover their true potential, as great knowledge awakens, this very world of ours becomes a Garden of Eden, an earthly paradise.
This beautiful Sukhavati Heaven is not somewhere far away. Those who truly understand the Buddha’s enlightenment know the real meaning of Sukhavati—that through the Buddha’s teachings, all experience becomes a sacred expression of wisdom, perfectly clear: an open field in which all our obstacles are already transformed.
Just as nourishing food grows with the help of compost, just as a lotus springs out of the mud of a lake bed, so the gifts of our experience can become expressions of the perfect, alchemical transmutation of the mind.
A garden needs compost, good soil, in order to yield its vegetables and fruits. These sweet and savory treasures so necessary for our survival can actually be seen as examples of the powerful potentials that are activated when samsara is transformed. Just as nourishing food grows with the help of compost, just as a lotus springs out of the mud of a lake bed, so the gifts of our experience can become expressions of the perfect, alchemical transmutation of the mind. Attitudes, emotions, and even our innermost obstacles can be transformed in this way, becoming expressions of freedom, sources of joy. Even the most intractable limits on our understanding can become vehicles–even the ‘what’ that is to be transformed, even the ‘how’ of the transformation itself.
That’s why the Buddha’s teachings are so important, and why the Sangha plays such a key role in their survival. The great masters of the past and present from all the Buddhist traditions are embodiments of wisdom that show and share, teaching by word and example and opening our understanding wide. Buddhism is not just a specific philosophy or school; it is rooted in the sharing of compassion, and it reveals a treasury of universal wisdom, our common heritage as sentient beings.
When we consider it in this light, we can see that Sarnath International Nyingma Institute is a great success; its directors, staff, and students have all done excellent and admirable work. As Director, Tsering has worked with intelligence, diligence, and wise good judgment, bringing together Western and Tibetan forms of inquiry to create new, highly beneficial projects, like the Kangyur Encyclopedia Project that unites scholars from the major schools of Tibetan Dharma and promises to yield rich fruit that will surely benefit Dharma students of all levels and backgrounds. Dozens of outstanding khenpos and geshes are working very hard to illuminate new dimensions of the precious Kangyur, and their work is being very well received. It is my hope that the gains made through this project will serve as a stable foundation for superb translations of Kangyur texts in many languages.
This is a crucial next step for the Dharma’s survival. As more and more knowledgeable people from all lands and all walks of life engage directly with the Buddha’s teachings, I hope it will become increasingly clear that this knowledge is not the property of any one country or region. I hope that SINI can help more and more people recognize that the Dharma offers a universal form of teaching.
I hope that SINI can help more and more people recognize that the Dharma offers a universal form of teaching.
In this modern world, all of us have busy lives. As we go about our daily routines, it seems we are all quite preoccupied—by habits and hobbies, what we call ‘creativity’, or ‘lifestyle’, or ‘society’… or ‘mind.’ At the same time, we don’t seem to have much genuine understanding of time. Because our understanding is limited, naturally, our time is, too. Because of this apparent limit on our time, it’s important for now that we prioritize whatever could actually help set us free from suffering. We don’t need to carry the burden of our problems; we don’t need to be caught up in darkness and loneliness. It is possible that we may be free from all of this, opening up unexpected opportunities that, universally shared, lead to important knowledge: these are the treasures of Dharma that are waiting for us.
Once upon a time, the masters of old demonstrated their clarity in magical displays that some might call miraculous. These extraordinary gestures, expressions of their inseparability from deep knowing, are now very rare, and fewer and fewer of us continue to really believe in these potentials. Yet still we have the mind; our natural home is still here. That magical mind has a special job—a duty of knowing knowledge, a mission of seeing and understanding. It still holds the potential for the most profound realization—and the miraculous opportunity it gives us is one we must not allow ourselves to miss.
Bridging ancient and modern, mind and miracle, SINI has done a marvelous job these past ten years. I commend my daughter Tsering and the superb Tibetan khenpos, lopons, and geshes with whom she works, as well as her wonderful international staff and volunteers. Going forward, I hope SINI will continue to thrive and expand in the coming decades. In the end, SINI’s mission of care is at the heart of our mission as human beings: that everybody may become happy, healthy, wise, and free.
Sarvam Mangalam, Jayantu Ho Odiyan Copper Mountain Mandala November 29, 2023