An Interview with Sangmo Yangri, Ph.D., Teacher at Lishu
Lishu Institute near Dehradun, India, will begin the second year of its three-year residential program in Tibetan Bon Buddhism on September 12, 2016. The year will focus on the Ma Gyud teachings, one of the major tantric cycles in the Bon tradition. All are welcome to apply for the second year of teachings. We interviewed Sangmo Yangri, Lishu teacher and administrator, for an update about this year’s program and plans for the second year.
Q: Sangmo, can you tell us briefly about your connection to Bon and to Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche?
A: I grew up near the Menri monastery in Dolanji (India) and my father was a close friend of His Eminence Yongdzin Rinpoche, so since early childhood I have been immersed in the Bon tradition and culture. The same way, I have known Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche since childhood. Later I studied and got my Ph.D. at the University of Varanasi in Bon and Buddhist Philosophy. [She is the first Tibetan woman to receive this Ph.D.] Tenzin Rinpoche connected me to Lishu the first time in 2008, and in 2011, during the second gathering at Lishu, he introduced me to the participants (about 100 people) as a future teacher at Lishu. Then he asked me to join Lishu after the completion of my Ph.D. in 2013.
Q: What have you been doing since you arrived at Lishu?
A: I have been teaching at Lishu since spring 2015, when I taught a six-week intensive Tibetan language course. When the three-year program started in September, I was in charge of all the teachings during the first trimester; namely the first and second sutric vehicles of the Nine Ways of Bon, the first three chapters of the Hagiography of Buddha Tonpa Shenrab, Tibetan language and Bon prayers. During this second trimester, in addition to the lectures (hagiography, Tibetan language), I translated the teachings of Geshe Sherab Lodoe, who joined us from Menri Monastery to teach the third and fourth sutric vehicles. I also am a liaison with Menri and nearby monasteries and a member of the Lishu management, which includes participating in the examination and selection of applicants.
Q: Can you please introduce us to the plan for the second year of the program?
A: Ma Gyud Sangye Gyud Sum is a teaching coming directly from Dharmakaya Kuntu Zangpo, the primordial Buddha. The second year, which starts September 12, addresses the six great methods of the Path of the Ma Gyud cycle:
In addition, we will continue the hagiography of Buddha Tonpa Sherab and the Tibetan language. The year will have a strong emphasis on practice. Geshe Sherab Lodoe will teach the Ma Gyud. I will teach Hagiography and Tibetan Language, and I will translate Geshe-la’s teachings.
Q: What other staff are there at Lishu?
A: Geshe Thupten Negi is the president of Lishu and takes care of the general administration. We also have a cook and someone to clean the common areas. His Eminence Ponlop Trinley Nyima Rinpoche came during the first trimester to give a teaching on Sherab Chamma and will come again, probably this fall, to give the empowerment. We will invite teachers from Menri Monastery to come to Lishu and teach on specific topics, as needed.
Q: What does a typical day at Lishu look like?
A: During the second trimester this year, the day begins at 7 a.m. with tsa lung (Tibetan yoga) and meditation practice, followed by Sherab Chamma and Yeshe Walmo prayers. We have breakfast at 8 a.m. Classes are held from 9 a.m. to noon, with teachings on the greater vehicles of the 9 Ways and the hagiography of Tonpa Shenrab. Following lunch and a short break, Tibetan language classes are held in the afternoons—grammar and reading on Monday and Tuesday, Bon prayers on Wednesday and Thursday, and Tibetan speaking class on Friday. Mealtimes and tea breaks are opportunities to share and discuss. The students have free time on weekends and can use this time to relax and/or to study and practice. Lishu is located in a quiet area in the countryside, with a small village within easy walking distance, but it is possible to go Dehradun or other nearby cities like Rishikesh.
Q: Are there visitors to Lishu, and do students visit other places?
A: We have regular visits of monks from Menri and Za Mongyal Monasteries. We’ve had other visitors for short periods, including two journalists from a Buddhist magazine from Delhi. We had the great fortune to host Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche last September. Then the Lishu sangha went with Rinpoche to Menri Monastery. The young Tulku Pondse Jigme Tenzin (Jorge Rene Valles Sandoval) was among the students.
When we were at Menri, one 87-year-old man, who was the disciple of his previous incarnation (the great Bon master Lopon Sangye Tenzin), was very eager to meet the young Tulku and pay respect to him by offering the traditional khata (ceremonial scarf). It was very moving for all the students to see the devotion radiating from this man.
The students have visited Menri Monastery and Za Mongyal Monasteries (both Bon) and also other monasteries such as Mindrolling (a Nyingma monastery in nearby Dehradun) and the Sakya monastery.
Q: Can anyone apply for the second year of study, whether or not they attended the first year program?
A: Yes. The whole three-year program is designed in a modular and flexible way. Therefore, it is not mandatory to attend the first year to be able to apply for the second year. Although there will be a strong emphasis on the practice from the second year onward, Tibetan language will continue to be part of the program. The students who have been attending the teachings in Lishu so far have very different backgrounds. Some have followed Bon and/or teachings for decades, some are pretty new. So we have already had to adapt to different levels. The Ma Gyud cycle in the second year and the Zhang Zhung Nyen Gyud in the third year are pretty independent.
Q: What type of applicants are you looking for?
A: We are looking for motivated and determined people to study and practice. New students should have the will to adapt to a new environment. One important requirement is to speak English fluently. Other than that, the admission committee will address each application individually. We invite people who would like to apply to contact us and ask any questions they might have.
Q: How do you see the Lishu environment as being beneficial for learning and practice?
A: Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche’s vision for Lishu was a place where Westerners could dedicate themselves to long-term study. It's now embodied, and it is really meant to foster in-depth study and practice. Lishu is located in quiet area, so the facilities enable the students to concentrate on their study and practice. Furthermore, they have closer connection to the Bon tradition by interacting with Bon monasteries.
This is still the first year for the program at Lishu, so many things still need to be built up. For example, we have a project to establish a library, and to improve and develop the gompa. In addition, we need some basic materials such as a printer/copy machine, generator… so any support is most welcome!