Karma Shri Nalanda Institute for Higher Buddhist Studies

Even before leaving his main seat at Tsurphu Monastery in Tibet in 1959 as a result of the Communist occupation, His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa had begun preparations to establish an institute for higher Buddhist studies to be attended by tulkus and monks. He knew that full spiritual potential is only realized through integrating intellectual understanding of the teachings with the direct experience of practice and meditation.

After settling in Sikkim, he decided to first establish a monastery. At last he found it possible to begin construction of Karma Shri Nalanda Institute (KSNI) in 1980 as a branch of his main seat-in-exile, Rumtek Dharma Chakra Centre, and the institute was inaugurated on November 18, 1981. Monasteries in the Himalayan region of Sikkim, India, Nepal, and Bhutan were asked to send two monks each to study at the institute. When they completed their studies, they would return to their monasteries to teach, or stay to assist in the work at KSNI.

Among the first graduating class were seven Rinpoches, including Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, Drupon Rinpoche, and Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche; and Khenpo Ugyen Tenzin, who served as resident abbot of the institute from 1997 to 2002.

historical photo of KSNI students

Some of the first students at KSNI in the 1980s

Karma Shri Nalanda Institute was founded to preserve and propagate the noble teachings of Lord Buddha and, in particular, the Kagyu tradition of Mahayana Buddhism, to help spread the nectar of dharma throughout the world. Here, serious students are afforded the opportunity to train under the most experienced teachers in the living Buddhist tradition of Tibet: the sutras, tantras, and meditation. In this way, the continuation of the accumulated wealth of knowledge transmitted from ancient times to the present will be insured, and its benefits made available to all. It was His Holiness' wish that graduates of this international Buddhist institute would provide teaching, guidance, and inspiration to students from all over the world, and especially in the centers he had founded.

Nalanda Institute was officially recognized in 1984 by the cabinet of the government of Sikkim and its Department of Ecclesiastical Affairs. Since 1987, while maintaining its independent administration, the institute has been formally affiliated with Sampurnanand Sanskrit University of Varanasi, India, becoming an officially accredited institution. This enables Nalanda students to have certified qualifications acceptable to other universities and programs. The university governs the annual examinations, and, with KSNI, jointly awards the acharya (masters-level) degree.

Administration and the Directorship

During the summer retreat in 1981, the Sixteenth Karmapa wrote "The Constitution, Code of Conduct, and Curriculum of Karma Shri Nalanda Institute for Higher Buddhist Studies," a document that governs the administration and curriculum of KSNI. Under the constitution, directorship of the institute is shared among the regents of the Kagyu order, who, in conjunction with the appointed and qualified abbot, are responsible for overseeing the institute.

An extensive collection of dharma texts from all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism fill the KSNI library

The Abbots

Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche and Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche are the principal teachers at Nalanda Institute. Both senior abbots have written textbooks and commentaries that are used at KSNI, and under their guidance, fundamental curricular and teaching methodologies have been established. In 1997, Khenpo Ugyen Tenzin was appointed resident khenpo, and served in that capacity until 2002.

Publications

In accordance with the wishes of the Sixteenth Karmapa, the Third Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche Memorial Library preserves the Karma Kagyu philosophy texts that form the basis of study at the shedra. The shedra library purchases and publishes textbooks, sponsors the creation of woodblock editions, and obtains thangka paintings for the institute. Texts from the Gelug, Sakya, and Nyingma schools of Tibetan Buddhism are also housed here. 

History

His Holiness' Dream

Karma Shri Nalanda Institute for Higher Buddhist Studies (KSNI) is a monastic college, or shedra, founded in November 1981 at Rumtek Dharma Chakra Centre in Sikkim by His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa, supreme head of the Kagyu order of Tibetan Buddhism. According to His Eminence Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche, the Sixteenth Karmapa's main teacher, the Eleventh Situpa Pema Wangchuk Gyalpo, established an institute for Buddhist studies at Palpung Monastery in Derge, east Tibet. He told the Sixteenth Karmapa that great benefit had come from providing such a facility where the Buddhist teachings were transmitted and studied. He also asked that the Karmapa establish such an institute, saying it would benefit the Buddhist teachings greatly.

A rupa and photo of H.H. the Sixteenth Karmapa in the Main Assembly Hall of KSNI today

 Through keeping the advice of his teacher in mind, the Karmapa had a vision of the great Pandita Vimalamitra, a scholar and mahasiddha instrumental in establishing Buddhism in Tibet, who said: "Establish an institute where the teachings will be properly transmitted and studied, and I will emanate as teachers and students throughout thirteen lifetimes." The Karmapa decided with certainty to establish such an institute in order to serve the Buddhist doctrine, a school in which the name of the institute would be reflected in the teachings and studies conducted there. Though he began plans for the institute while he was at Tsurphu Monastery in Tibet, he was unable to complete them before 1959, when he fled into exile due to the Communist takeover.

Construction of Karma Shri Nalanda Institute began in 1980 and was completed in 1982. "Nalanda" was the name of one of the most illustrious Buddhist universities in ancient India and according to Buddhist historical records, it was the home of numerous great scholars including Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Vasubhandu, and Santaraksita. The name "Karma Sri Nalanda Institute" was given by the Karmapa during the construction phase. 

Principals, abbots, and assistants were appointed by the Karmapa. His Holiness also instructed that the students were to follow the rules of the Vinaya (the code of conduct for the ordained sangha as taught by the Buddha) as explained in the commentary by the Eighth Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje, and their curriculum would follow the authentic Kagyu tradition. Every detail of the institute, such as the times of classes and the yearly calendar, received the Karmapa's personal attention and was recorded in a thirteen-point memorandum.

 His Holiness placed great importance on establishing the shedra and one of his last wishes was that the new institute be inaugurated. Such an inauguration ceremony took place on November 18, 1981, almost two weeks after His Holiness passed into parinirvana and on the day of Lhabab Duchen, which commemorates the Buddha's descent from the realm of the gods. The ceremony was performed by the appointed directors of the institute, the regents, and Mr. Dhamchoe Yongdu, the general secretary of His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa.

After the funeral ceremonies for His Holiness concluded, forty-five monks from various Himalayan monasteries gathered for the institute's first classes in December. Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche began the day with a teaching on Jetsun Dolma, the wisdom deity Green Tara, and continued with the Bodhisattvacaryavatara, the classical Indian text on the bodhisattva ideals of Mahayana Buddhism by the eighth century Indian saint Shantideva. 

Students in one of the classrooms in the original KSNI building

Classrooms, student living quarters, a kitchen, and dining room make up the five-story building. Now, the original Karma Shri Nalanda Institute also houses the Golden Stupa, the reliquary monument for the Sixteenth Karmapa.

In 1981, when the building was nearly complete, the supreme Fourteenth Dalai Lama visited at the request of the Gyalwa Karmapa. He was received to the accompaniment of ritual music and offerings of incense, and taught on the Aryaprajnaparamitasamcayagathasutra and The Jewel Ornament of Liberation by Gampopa. The Dalai Lama gave profound and extensive advice to the teachers and students, and encouraged them to exert themselves so the intentions of the supreme and precious Karmapa would be fulfilled.

After the Karmapa passed away in 1981, his spiritual sons and administrators affirmed their intention to carry out his wishes exactly as he had stated. The principals, who had been appointed by the Karmapa, based their activity on his intentions. The first principal was His Eminence Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche.

As seen in 1987, the original KSNI is on the left as the new building undergoes construction above it. 

An Annex Built to Accommodate More Students

It was His Holiness' intention that the institute would gradually expand to include at least 300 students. As enrollment grew in the early 1980's, the original building became too small and plans were made for new and larger accommodations. Under the directorship of Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche and according to the wishes of the Karmapa, the construction of an annex building began in 1984. Tenzin Namgyal, then deputy secretary of Rumtek Dharma Chakra Centre, served as project supervisor.

Due to His Eminence's tremendous effort, the institute received generous donations from disciples and centers of the lineage, and with the joyful participation of the students, the building was completed in 1987. This five-story annex includes a library, a main shrine and lecture hall large enough to accommodate over a thousand students, classrooms, offices, kitchen and dining facilities, a side courtyard for debating, and living quarters for the abbots, teachers, and students. On the top floor are the Karmapa's personal quarters.

The new building is constructed in the traditional Tibetan architectural style, beautifully ornate and resplendent in the bright colors that mark Tibetan Buddhist sacred art. Exquisite wall and ceiling paintings grace the main shrine hall, executed by a team of artists under the direction of Thinley Chojor, now resident master painter at Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, His Holiness' North American seat. Three great statues of Shakyamuni Buddha, Manjushri, the deity of wisdom, and His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa line the altar, complemented by smaller images of the Sixteen Arhats, and the texts of the Kangyur and Tengyur. Thangkas of the Gendruk Chogngi, the eight most eminent Indian scholars of Buddhist philosophy, hang on each side of the altar.

An ornate throne, ready for His Holiness the Seventeenth Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, looks out over rows of cushions that sit on top of the polished marble floor. Students assemble in the hall each morning and evening for group Manjushri and Mahakala practice, respectively. Examinations and seminars are also held here.

Their Eminences Gyaltsap Rinpoche, left, and Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche at the opening of the new KSNI in 1987

Their Eminences Jamgon Rinpoche and Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche, then the acting directors of KSNI, inaugurated the new building in June 1987 at a festive opening ceremony that included speeches of congratulations, and dharma talks given by prominent teachers. Seven hundred distinguished guests attended, including the vice-chancellor of Sampurnanand Sanskrit University (Varanasi, U.P.), the secretary of the Ecclesiastical Department of the government of Sikkim, representatives of various Buddhist institutes, scholars, teachers and many other friends and well-wishers. Later that year, His Holiness the Sakya Trizin, supreme holder of the Sakya lineage, visited and gave the Manjushri empowerment to the students of the institute.

With the opening of the new building of Karma Shri Nalanda Institute, a long-cherished aspiration of His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa was fulfilled.

Directors, Abbots and Staff

 

 

 

 

 

Directors

His Eminence Situ Rinpoche (above left)
His Eminence Gyaltsab Rinpoche (second from left)

Abbots

Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche (second from right)
Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche (far right)

Resident Khenpos

Khenpo Kelsang Nyima
Khenpo Gawang
Khenpo Tsultrim Nyima
Khenpo Karten

Faculty

Most of the faculty members at Karma Shri Nalanda are volunteers or paid by contributors. Members of the assistant teaching staff have either graduated from KSNI, or have received their acharya degrees and are pursuing their studies toward graduation.

Teaching staff

Khenpo Kelsang Nyima - Philosophy master
Khenpo Gawang - Philosophy master
Khenpo Tsultrim Nyima - Debate teacher
Khenpo Karten - Debate teacher
Awadesh Kumar Divedi - Sanskrit lecturer
Shiva Kumar Thapa - English teacher

Students, Curriculum, and Daily Schedule

Shedra Students

Students at Nalanda have an extraordinary devotion toward the Buddha and his teachings since it is based on a thorough knowledge and understanding of the Buddhist path. With this attitude, they study the precious teachings of the sutras, tantras, and Buddhist sciences. His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa envisioned tulkus and monks studying at the institute and joining in the great task of carrying the banner of the accomplishment lineage to all corners of the earth for the benefit of all sentient beings.

Applicants study hard to prepare for the required entrance examination conducted by Sampuranand Sanskrit University. Though most pass, anyone who fails may continue to prepare for an additional year and try again. There is no difficulty finding qualified candidates for the school, with 125 having already applied, but there is difficulty finding sponsors for the students who have enrolled.

Tibetan refugees and students from India, Nepal, and Bhutan form the majority of the current student body. Most students cannot pay any of the costs associated with their education, and the shedra provides free education, textbooks, food, and lodging for qualified applicants who wish to pursue monastic study there. The institute receives financial support from individual donations which makes it possible to offer this assistance.

In 1982, through the efforts of KSNI teachers and with the permission of His Eminence Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, the Students' Welfare Committee was founded. Its main aim is to provide help, support, and medical assistance for poor and sick students, and to arrange religious ceremonies and special programs commemorating the four great occasions of the Tibetan Buddhist calendar at the institute. Committee members are appointed by His Eminence Gyaltsab Rinpoche.

Degree Program

Students must have an eighth-grade level or equivalent education for admission to the shedra. Once admitted, they are required to take a two-year preliminary course of study before they can enroll in the university-level courses. Students begin in the shetrig class, the first preparatory course which takes its name from the text on shetrig philosophy composed by Nagarjuna, and then progress to the khenjug class, named for a Tibetan philosophy text composed by Mipham Rinpoche.

After enrolling in the institute and completing seven years of university courses in the full shedra program, students are awarded the shastri degree, equivalent to a bachelor's degree, and after two more years, the acharya degree, the master's degree in Buddhist studies, is conferred by Sampuranand Sanskrit University. Karma Shri Nalanda Institute also simultaneously confers the ka-rabjampa degree (master of Buddhist sutras). Students then teach for three years at the shedra, and specialize in one school of philosophy from among the five major philosophies of the Kagyu lineage before they can take the test for the khenpo designation. Once they graduate as a khenpo, most return to serve at their original monasteries.

The fundamental training at the institute is based on a rigorous, traditional course of study with some influence from modern educational systems. A variety of Buddhist philosophy and psychology courses compose the required curriculum at KSNI. Elective courses include Tibetan grammar and literature, Sanskrit, a choice of either English or Hindi, base logic, and a choice of Buddhist history, art, Tibetan medicine, astrology, or Pali. In addition to their academic pursuits, students also engage in various meditation practices.

In the first two years philosophy students study the Vinaya, the code of behavior derived from the words of the Buddha describing the conduct of a nun or monk. This series of rules was created by the Buddha to guide the monastic community toward illumination. During the third and fourth year, the philosophy teachings focus on the abhidharma, the body of the Buddha's teachings described as Buddhist psychology, metaphysics, or cosmogonies. The abhidharma has also been called the teachings which describe the nature of the mind.

On a rainy day, students practice debating on the KSNI balcony

 In the fifth and sixth year, students study the sutras on Prajnaparamita, the perfection of profound cognition used to discover one's innate wisdom. In addition, from the fifth through the eighth year, the program includes part of Pramanavartikka, a text on Buddhist logic by the eminent Indian logician Dharmakirti, that prepares the students for formal debating.

After the first six years, students no longer study Sanskrit or Tibetan grammar, and their seventh year is focused solely on philosophy, Buddhist history, and logic with the study of Madhyamaka, the Bodhisattvacaryavatara, a classic text on the bodhisattva ideals of Mahayana Buddhism by the eighth century scholar Shantideva, and parts of Pramanavartikka. At this point, students take a comprehensive exam and if they pass, they no longer study the entire elective course.

The senior class, those who have already earned their acharya degrees, is concerned solely with philosophy and logic, which they study for two years, focusing on aspects of Madhyamaka and the Bodhisattvacaryavatara. The Pramanavartikka is completed in the eighth year. Students also study The Sixty Reasonings of Emptiness by Nagarjuna.

In the final year, students continue with Madhyamaka and also study three texts written by the Third Karmapa, Ranjung Dorje: Buddha Nature, with commentary by the Eighth Situpa, Chokyi Jungne; Distinguishing between Consciousness and Wisdom with commentary by Situpa Chokyi Jungne; and the Aspiration Prayer of Mahamudra with commentary by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye.

Daily Schedule

Students begin their day at five o'clock in the morning when they gather in the main temple of the institute to chant the Manjushri prayer to sharpen their wisdom. After self-study, chores, and breakfast, the morning classes start at 8:00. The first session finishes at noon for the lunch break; the second session starts at 1:00 p.m. and ends at 4:00, with tea at 3:30. The third session, when all students practice traditional individual debate, starts at 4:00 and finishes at 6:00, when dinner begins. At 7:00 the students gather for Mahakala puja for one hour, and then return to their rooms to study from 8:00 to 10:00.