What does FPMT stand for? Does the FPMT have a right to it's name?

FPMT = the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition

Founded by Kyabje Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche en Lama Thubten Yeshe (aka: Lama Zopa and Lama Yeshe)

Katinka Hesselink 2012

When I first realized what the FPMT stood for, I thought it's title remarkably presumptuous. After all, the FPMT is not, as a superficial reading of it's name would suggest, devoted to teaching and preserving all sorts of Mahayana Buddhism. You won't usually find a Zen monk on the premises of an FPMT centre for instance. You may find mindfulness teachers, tai chi, yoga and qigong though...

However, after thinking it over, I do think the organisation is worthy of it's name in the following sense at least:

In the West what we see of Mahayana Buddhism is usually very much influenced by modernity. We get a Zen Buddhism without much ritual, Mindfulness without Vippassana (insight meditation on Buddhist themes) and where the Bodhisattva vow is taught, it's usually without much help on how to make it practical.

Mahayana Buddhism survives in China, Japan and the Tibetan Buddhist community. Threads of Zen (Japan) and Tibetan Buddhism have become popular in the West and have spread as well to South East Asia where a true Buddhist revival seems on the way.

Still, the question is how much of Buddhism will survive. Buddhism in the West seems to have become synonymous with mindfulness, combining science with spirituality, a vague idea of the Buddha's life and that's about it. Famous Buddhist teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama and Pema Chodron speak in two tongues: one meant for their Buddhist followers, the other for people who are merely looking for a psychology that is ethically sound and wholesome.

Don't get me wrong: that's clearly what people need and as such there is nothing wrong with it. The thing is though:  there is so much more to Buddhism than that and it's hidden in plain sight.

It's hidden in fact, even from most devotees, since few look beyond the boundaries of their own sangha. They know a bit of Zen, but nothing of Tibetan Buddhism, or vice versa. Few know more than the basics of Buddhist history as uncovered by scientists looking at sources like the sanskrit texts that were uncovered in Nepalese monasteries, archeological finds, reports from Chinese pilgrims etc.

Where does the FPMT stand in all this? It teaches advanced material, usually only accessible to monks (whether of the Tibetan or Japanese persuasion) to lay people in Western Languages.

I'm talking about the old Indian Mahayana classics from Asanga and Nagarjuna for instance.

The FPMT is a Gelugpa Buddhist organisation. That means that it's geshes (Tibetan Lama's) were all taught within that school, either in Tibet or (in case of the younger generation) in India in exile. The last of the lama's who came into exile are still teaching, but that can't last more than a decade or two at the most. These teachers  studied the Indian texts and their Tibetan commentaries for a long time: totaling up to 20 years. Their level of scholarship equals that of a Western PHD, though of course the cultural context is totally different.

Since the basic texts on which these commentaries are based are common to all Mahayana Schools, and the FPMT is teaching them to whoever is willing to study, in that sense the FPMT does preserve the Mayahana Tradition. Unfortunately Japanese scholarship has not been as productive of accessible literature for the West at an equally high academic level, though there are a few exceptions.

When Buddhism came to Tibet there was very little high culture there. This meant that Buddhism could be imported almost wholesale without having to be integrated into that high culture. Unlike it had to do in China, for instance. The result is not of course a Buddhism without Tibetan influences: obviously Tibetan Buddhism owes much to the earlier Tibetan culture as well. However, it did necessitate developments that make Tibetan Buddhism very suitable for being transplanted into the West.

I'm talking about the Lam Rim. Where in India teachings were simply followed and taught on a whim, in Tibet people became very confused with what they got to see of Buddhism. Teachings did not come with their Indian cultural background automatically explained so all kinds of misunderstandings came up. The situation was in that sense comparable to the situation of Buddhism in the West at present.

In order to deal with that and create order in chaos, the Indian teacher Atisha was asked to write a text that would sum up the path for anybody at any level of understanding. The result was Atisha's Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment the first Lam Rim text. Lama Tsong Khapa expanded on the genre (as it was to become) with 3 Lam Rims: the Great, middling and small lam Rim. So far the first and the last have been translated into English, as has the Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment.

The great thing about the Lam Rim is that it explains Buddhism in such a way that even Theravada Buddhists will find more that is familiar than what isn't. In fact, one former Thai monk told me that even the teachings on emptiness within the Lam Rim were in common with what he'd been taught. Only Bodhicitta was new. That and tantra of course, but the Lam Rim only hints at those teachings, because it deals with Sutra only.

The point is that anybody seriously interested in Buddhism ought to study the Lam Rim in one form or another, since it really does contain all the essential Buddhist teachings from all the schools.

In short: yes, the FPMT does live up to it's name of preserving the Mahayana Tradition as it promotes the study and meditation on classic Mahayana texts that are in common to all Mahayana traditions.

I look forward to a day when Buddhist philosophers from Japan meet with Tibetan Lama's and find out just where their various traditions (several on both sides) meet and differ. We might come to see a debate like they hand in the old days in India. When that day comes, perhaps the FPMT can play a role and live up to it's name in the broader sense as well?

FPMT Links