The first Saturday of every November is International Temples Day where we celebrate the creation and maintenance of Kadampa temples around the world. On this day we principally try to recall why temples matter. On this basis, we become inspired to do what we can to become part of the International Temple’s Project – and don’t worry, there are many other ways we can help besides just donating money.
What is the International Temples Project?
One of the central legacies of Geshe-la in this world is the International Temples Project. Launched in the mid-1990s, it is Geshe-la’s vision for there to eventually be a qualified Kadampa temple in every major city of the world. Geshe-la’s wish is for the Kadam Dharma to pervade everywhere, and these temples are like iron frames upon which buildings are built. They provide the basic structure sustaining and supporting the development of Kadam Dharma in the minds of the beings of this world.
The very first temple was opened in 1997 at Manjushri Kadampa Meditation Center in Ulverston, England. It is the mother center of the NKT, and this temple is the mother temple for all the others. Later, another temple was opened in Glen Spey, New York. I was fortunate enough to be at the opening of both temples. Since then, temples have sprung up in Brazil, Arizona, Spain, and more are planned until eventually, they will be everywhere.
Gen Losang once told me, “temples are like Embassies of the Pure Land in this world, and our Dharma teachers are like the Ambassadors of all the Buddhas.” An Embassy is like a portal through which another country can express its culture and share its experience in a foreign land. The goal is to improve relations between the two countries and their peoples. By coming into contact with temples, the beings of this world are introduced to the pure worlds of the Buddhas. Through temples, the wisdom of all the Buddhas is brought into this world. Those who are interested can enter into these spiritual Embassies and be transported to new worlds.
Geshe-la explained that each temple is by nature Heruka’s celestial mansion in this world. One of our refuge commitments is to regard any statue of a Buddha as an actual Buddha. We are supposed to see past the craftmanship, no matter how beautiful it may be, and with our eyes of faith see a living Buddha. In exactly the same way, when we see or enter into a temple, we should recognize it as an in essence Heruka’s celestial palace in this world, where we are transported to the pure land, can receive the blessings of all the Buddhas, and can learn all of the stages of the path. Without a portal, we cannot enter. Temples are an outer portal that leads us to the inner portal to lands of eternal peace.
Geshe-la has said that our Kadampa temples are our places of pilgrimage. We are not always able to make it to every Kadampa festival or Dharma celebration, but we should make an effort to go at least once in our life. One of the commitments of Muslims is to make a pilgrimage to the Haaj at least once in their lifetime. Personally, I think this would also make a wonderful commitment for all Kadampas. One cannot help but be moved by the experience, and karmically speaking the experience quite literally stays with us our whole life.
Geshe-la explains that the karma we create by helping a Dharma center continues to accumulate for as long as that center exists, and it continues to expand as the center expands. In the early days, there was no center in Los Angeles, just a small, rented house in Santa Barbara. There was a woman who lived in the center named Lea, who helped keep the center afloat financially with her rent payments and who dedicated her time to organize classes and other center activities. In the beginning, it was basically just her, and without her, the center would have never gotten off the ground. Later, a branch was opened in Los Angeles, which grew and grew until eventually now there is a vibrant spiritual community. Eventually, I have no doubt, there will be a Manjushri-style temple there. I don’t know whatever happened to Lea, she was likely just an emanation of Tara sent to help, but the karma she accumulated from that initial help continues to multiply today. The temples we build are built to last. There are churches in Rome that are over a thousand years old. We are at the very beginning of the International Temples Project, and the help we provide now will be like Lea’s, and the karma we accumulate will serve us in all our future lives.
Why do temples matter?
Everyone appreciates a beautiful temple, even non-religious people. All over the world, tourists flock to churches, temples, mosques, and other sites of worship. They are living testaments to the faith of the practitioners who built them and serve as a point of focus for practitioners. Normally we might think it is a sign of degeneration that these places of worship become tourist attractions, but Geshe-la explains this is one of their greatest advantages. Why? Every time we see a Buddha image, it creates a non-contaminated karmic potentiality on our mind which can never be destroyed and will eventually become a seed of our future enlightenment. Angulamala had killed hundreds of people and when he went to ordain, seers said he could not because they could find no virtue on his mind. Buddha, however, looked into his mind and saw that in a previous life he was a fly who landed on some dung next to a stupa (a representation of Buddha’s mind). This seed could not be destroyed, even by all his evil deeds, and later became the foundation for his spiritual life. When busloads of children and tourists come and visit our temples, they behold hundreds of images of Buddhas, each time planting the seeds of their future enlightenment on their minds.
Gen Losang once famously asked who is more important, those who come to the center and stay or those who come to the center and leave? If we look at how centers are organized, it seems our implicit answer is those who come and stay. But Gen Losang said it was those who come and leave who are more important because they are more numerous. Some practitioners might think they don’t need temples and they wonder why so much emphasis is placed on creating them, but this is because they are thinking primarily about their own needs and not the larger function temples serve in the world.
Kadam Lucy said the most important thing people discover when they come to a temple or Dharma center is not the building, but the people. Everyone is looking for happiness but rarely do we find genuinely happy people. If when people come to visit our Dharma centers they find happy people, others will naturally want to stay and find out what the secret to their happiness is. Everyone is looking for unconditional love and lightness, and we can provide that. Seen in this way, we – the practitioners of this tradition – are equally part of the Temple’s project simply through the force of our example and our welcoming attitude. The essence of the Kadampa Way of life is “everybody welcome.” This does not just mean nobody is excluded, it means everyone is made to feel welcome as if they are coming home.
My teacher in Paris said when we work to flourish the Dharma, we need to avoid the extremes of external and of internal flourishing. The external extreme is when we focus exclusively on external developments, like buildings, temples, ritual objects, and other external manifestations of being a “Dharma practitioner.” The internal extreme is when we completely neglect these things and only focus on gaining inner realizations, thinking the external manifestations are unnecessary or even anti-spiritual.
Venerable Tharchin said the real temple is the inner realizations and interpersonal connections of the practitioners who practice there. While of course, outer temples are important, inner temples are their main cause. He explains that since our minds are not separate from others, our inner realizations are like a beacon of light in the darkness of the minds of the beings of our community. All living things are naturally drawn towards the light, and the more realizations we gain and the closer the karmic connections we create with our fellow sangha, the brighter our light shines. The spiritual light in each one of us is like a single candle flame, but when we put our lights together, it creates a blazing spiritual sun in our communities. Venerable Tharchin explains that when the inner temple is right, the outer temple will spontaneously appear, almost like magic.
Venerable Tharchin also explains that every time we do a spiritual practice with others we create the causes to do the same spiritual practice with the same people again in the future. When we do a puja in a temple, for example, we create not only karmic connections with the Buddha of the given practice, but we create karma with all of the other practitioners engaging in the practice with us. This karma will ripen in the future in the form of us reuniting with these same people engaging in the same practice. It is in Temples that our international Kadampa family gathers together as a global sangha to engage in teachings and practices together. Without the temples, we could not gather together and create this karma. Seen in this way, temples are also like an insurance policy for finding the Dharma and our spiritual family again and again in all our future lives.
How Can We Celebrate International Temples Day?
The main way we celebrate this day is by contemplating why temples are so important to generate an appreciation for them. Sometimes we might hold ourselves back from doing so because we are afraid if we do so, we might then have to give some of our money, and we are extremely reluctant to do that. We wonder whether all of this talk about temples and the International Temples Project is really just a clever scam to get our money!
There are many ways we can contribute to the flourishing of Kadampa temples in this world without having to part with any of our money. Many people volunteer their lives and their skills to building temples. They travel the world offering their labor and their time to help build the temples the rest of us enjoy. How wonderful it would be to let go of our worldly concerns and live the life of an international temple builder! But even if that is not possible for us, we might be able to offer a Saturday afternoon using whatever skills – be they building skills or office skills – we might have to help advance the project.
All of us can rejoice in those who can donate their money or their time to the project. Rejoicing costs us nothing, but in doing so we create very powerful karma similar to that of those who are actually doing it. This karma will ripen in many ways. The ripened effect will be to be reborn either as a temple benefactor or a temple builder. The environmental effect will be to have temples appear in our lives in all our future lives. The effect similar to the cause will be to have the means in the future to be able to more easily give to the project. And the tendency similar to the cause will be to always appreciate the good qualities of Kadampa temples and those who make them happen.
We can additionally dedicate the merit we accumulate from our spiritual practices to the realization of Geshe-la’s vision for a Kadampa temple to appear in every major city of this world. One of the uncommon characteristics of pure wishes is the karma we dedicate towards them can never be destroyed and never ceases to work until our pure wish is fulfilled. This does not mean one prayer alone is enough, but each dedication we make adds energy towards the realization of this wish, and this energy can never be destroyed. When enough energy has been created, the result will spontaneously arise. All of us engage in spiritual practices every day, but how often do we decide to dedicate that merit to the fulfillment of Geshe-la’s vision for international temples? At a minimum, International Temple Day gives us an opportunity to make such dedications; and even better, to decide to start making such dedications every day.
Perhaps our city doesn’t yet have a temple. We might even become jealous of those cities that do have one or think we can’t advance in our practice unless we too have a temple, transforming them from an object of refuge into an object of attachment. Or perhaps we think our city is far away from having a temple because our Sangha is so small, so why should we help support the development of temples somewhere else where we won’t receive any benefit from it ourselves? None of us would admit to having any of these minds, but they do arise and they are as ridiculous as they sound. So what should we do? First, we can recall that by helping others have temples, we create the causes for ourselves to have one. That’s how karma works. Second, we can imagine that, even though our center might currently be a classroom we rent out one night a week in a local massage school, our actual center is Heruka’s celestial palace, a fully qualified temple. While our physical eyes might see plastic chairs in a room, our eyes of faith can imagine we have gone to the pure land and are receiving teachings in a temple. This imagination is very similar to generation stage of highest yoga tantra and creates the causes for our correct imagination to eventually become a reality.
One of the best ways we can contribute to the International Temples Project is to build within ourselves the inner temple of realizations Venerable Tharchin refers to. We can become the kind-hearted happy Kadampa who makes everyone feel welcome that Kadam Lucy extols. We can build close karmic connections with our Sangha friends so we can unite our candles together into a blazing spiritual sun. We can make a point of attending classes and putting our guru’s teachings we have received in temples or centers into practice. All of these actions create the deep substantial causes for temples to appear in this world. Without them, we fall into the extreme of the external flourishing of Dharma.
And yes, some of us can donate money.
The reality is temples cannot appear in this world without financial resources. It is not a scam or a cult, this is simply a fact about how the world works. Yes, the Dharma should be made freely available to all, but how is that to happen if nobody gives to them? There is a very special offering called a torma offering. The meaning of a torma offering is we are mentally willing to give everything we have for the sake of Dharma realizations because we recognize them as that valuable. Geshe-la’s books are filled with examples of practitioners willing to cut off their flesh or undergo incredible hardship for the sake of gaining access to teachings. He tells us these stories not to encourage us to do the same but to realize that it would be worth it even if we had to do so. Such practitioners, from their own side, value the Dharma more than they do their material belongings, including their own bodies.
Perhaps we don’t have any money now to give. No problem, we can give in all the other ways described above, or at a minimum, we can rejoice in those who do have such ability. We can also think about including the International Temples Project in our last will and testament so that when we die, whatever resources we have accumulated go towards spiritual purposes. In Joyful Path, Geshe-la tells the story of somebody who was extremely attached to their money when they died and was later reborn as a snake inside their money jar. He encourages us to give everything away before we die so that we are not attached to anything. Of course, we need to provide for our families, but we can also use some resources we have for spiritual purposes. Universities around the world accumulate vast endowments from such giving, which continues to support opportunities for students for generations to come. Why can we not do the same? Similarly, if our parents or relatives pass away, instead of keeping the money for ourselves, we can give some or all of it away to the Temples’ Project. Why keep it for ourselves when we can create so much better karma by giving it away? Such giving also helps our deceased relative because they get a fraction of the good karma of our giving away their money to spiritual causes.
My teacher in Paris once said, “We should give until it hurts.” Wow! What a statement. While it is perhaps unskillful to say, she makes a valid point. It is easy to give away things we don’t need or don’t use anymore, but it cuts into our self-cherishing to give more than that. What is bad for our self-cherishing is good for us. Geshe-la explains in the teachings on emptiness that an effective way to identify the self that we normally see is to think of it in a situation where it is particularly manifest, such as imagining we are standing on a high precipice. At such times, we clearly see our I. In the same way, sometimes we are forced to confront our demon of self-cherishing straight in the face, and others asking for donations is usually one of the most manifest examples. Our self-cherishing roars in protest and comes up with a thousand reasons why we shouldn’t give or feels like we are being spiritually manipulated out of our money, so we reject doing so as a matter of principle.
But are we being manipulated here? Is that the motivation and goal? Or are we merely being given an opportunity to accumulate amazing merit while benefiting countless future generations? Is our resistance to giving a matter of principle, or is it our self-cherishing rationalizing our miserliness? We need to be honest with ourselves. We talk all the time about the evils of our self-cherishing mind, but when we are presented with an opportunity to go against its wishes, how do we feel about that? Venerable Tharchin says it is better to give one penny a day for 100 days than $1 on one day. Why? Because the point is not the money, it is training in the mind of giving. There is something we can give, so why not do so? If we can’t part with our money, then no problem, there are still so many other things we can do that cost us nothing. We shouldn’t feel guilty or beat ourselves up for not being able to give money, it is just where we are at. No problem. We can recognize that and do what we can. When we do, we will find helping in greater and greater ways becomes easier over time.
In any case, we can meditate on the many good qualities of international temples and rejoice in their arising in this world. This is the essence of International Temples Day. The rest flows naturally from this.