Ithaca's Hidden Gem

By Parveen Talpur,, March 13, 2008

Buddhist monastery only one of its kind in North America

Binghamton, NY (USA) -- Tucked inside a turn-of-the-century Victorian house at 412 Aurora St. in Ithaca is a well-known Buddhist monastery that draws in students and visitors from all over North America.

"From the outside, you couldn't tell it is a temple because it is a house in a downtown neighborhood, except for the gold and brown colors, typical of a Buddhist temple," says Mary Soong of Ithaca, who passes by it frequently.

The Namgyal Monastery Institute of Buddhist Studies was established in 1992 by the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, so that Tibetans could have a religious and cultural sanctuary. It was also created so that Western students could have the opportunity to study authentic Tibetan Buddhism in a monastic setting.

"This monastery has been established as a learning center in North America to help people learn about Tibetan Buddhism and culture," said Ven. Tenzin Gephel, the resident monk at Namgyal Ithaca for the past 10 years. "It needs to adopt a certain way to manage and fulfill the purpose of the institute that correlates to the different cultural backgrounds. In this regard, we need our American friends who are very dedicated to helping the monastery. We only need to be careful not to lose the essence of Buddhism."

Namgyal Ithaca is the Dalai Lama's only North American headquarters, and it is the third incarnation of Namgyal (see box at right). While its size and ornamentation is nowhere close to its predecessor in Tibet -- that complex was constructed by 7,000 workers and 1,500 artists and masons -- the spirit of the Ithaca monastery is the same.

However, due to the growing interest in Buddhist studies, Namgyal will soon have a new home. It has purchased a 28-acre plot three miles south of its existing location on which to build a larger monastery. The completed 13,000-square-foot complex will feature traditional Tibetan architecture, as well as a huge shrine room, student housing, seasonal retreat cabins, dormitory rooms, private retreat rooms, housing for the monks and residences for a senior teacher and the Dalai Lama. The goal is to open by this summer, according to the monastery's Web site.

Another one of Namgyal's current goals is to promote religious harmony. While the monastery has been associated with the interfaith Cornell United Religious Work group since 2000, last October, the Dalai Lama came to Ithaca to participate in an interfaith service. "The Namgyal Institute would like to organize a bigger interfaith event at least once a year," said Gephel, who also acts as a Buddhist chaplain to Cornell United Religious Work.

Although the Namgyal monks and the Tibetan Buddhists are expanding their efforts into interfaith events, they have not forgotten the cause of their native land. The monks keep close track of all of the events occurring in Tibet.

Ven. Tenzin Wangchuk, board vice president at Ithaca's Namgyal Institute and the board representative of the Namgyal monastery in India, said he is concerned about a variety of issues, including mining operations and deforestation, and the melting of Tibet's sacred glacier, Mingyong, which will cause an environmental disaster if it melts.

"Tibet is Asia's principal watershed and the source of its major rivers, such as the Machu (Huang Ho -- Yellow River), Tsangpo (Brahmaputra), Drichu (Yangtse) and Senge Khabab (Indus), which flows into most neighboring countries and covers 47 percent of the earth's human population," he explains. "Therefore melting the glacier in Tibet will definitely affect the entire world, and specifically Asia."

While experts predict an immediate danger of floods, followed by draughts, desertification and biodiversity loss in and around Tibet, Wangchuk said, Buddhist villagers continue to hold on to the spiritual bond between them and the shrinking Mingyong.


Namgyal Monastery Institute of Buddhist Studies, located at 412 Aurora St., Ithaca, offers all levels of spiritual and academic experience in Tibetan Buddhism. Students can enroll in the three-year curriculum, individual classes or just a Saturday afternoon class.

Meditation is offered from 5:15 to 6 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at no charge and is open to the public.

The next weekend workshop, "Introduction to Emptiness: As Taught in Tsongkhapa's Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path" by Professor Guy Newland, will be held March 22-23. The intensive course is designed for both beginning and advanced students in preparation of the Dalai Lama's weeklong teaching on "The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path" in July.

The workshop is $135 and includes breakfast both days and a catered vegetarian dinner on Saturday. Pre-registration is required.

The History of Namgyal

The roots of the Namgyal Monastery can be traced to the 16th-century monastery of the same name in Tibet. Founded by the second Dalai Lama, Namgyal was built on the site of a sacred cave and formed a part of the colossal monastic complex in Lhasa.

The spectacular sight of the complex, set in the snow-covered mountain folds, attracts a large number of tourists along with Buddhist pilgrims. It is comprised of the shrines, tombs, monks' residences and the great Potala Palace, where the former dalai lamas lived and died until 1959. The 14th (and present) Dalai Lama abandoned it due to the threat of Chinese occupation.

With the flight of the Dalai Lama and his 55 monks, a new Namgyal Monastery was created in Northern India, where asylum was granted. A large number of Tibeten Buddhists have been pouring into India since then and have been living there as the most organized community of refugees.

About Buddhism

Buddhism has a history of surviving in different regions. It had abandoned India, its birthplace, long ago, only to flourish in more vast areas. At one point in time, Buddhism spread from Central Asia in the West to the "land of the rising sun" in the East, and from Sri Lanka in the South to the "rooftop of the world."

Tibet is considered to be the last place of Buddhist diffusion. But as refugees, Tibetan Buddhists have not limited themselves to India. Some of them have reached as far as the United States and are most conspicuous in Ithaca, where they have the honor of having Namgyal, the personal monastery of their spiritual leader.

Tenzin is one of the most common names of Tibetan Buddhists. For example, the Dalai Lama's first name is Tenzin. It means "the beholder of the Buddhist doctrine."

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