Tibetan Buddhists mark 25 years in Edmonton

by Jane Marshall, Edmonton Journal October 29, 2011

Abbot from B.C. monastery to visit next week
Edmonton, Canada
-- It all started with an Englishman's encounter with a Tibetan monk in London in 1979.

Andrew Mitchell moved to Canada and continued his investigation of Buddhism. A few years later, he was visiting Scotland and again spent time with Thrangu Rinpoche. He asked Rinpoche about starting a dharma group in Edmonton, Mitchell's new home, and with Rinpoche's encouragement, he did.

"Looking back, I didn't have much experience or qualifications to start a group," recalls a laughing Mitchell, a retired engineer. But he followed his heart and placed a notice in the The Journal's religion calendar. Several people attended, an eclectic group that included a theosophist and a woman named Usha Singh.

Celebrations this fall will mark the 25th anniversary of the Karma Tashi Ling Kagyu Tibetan Buddhist Meditation Society in Edmonton. A highlight will be a special visit Nov. 4 to 6 from Lama Pema Tsewang, the abbot of Thrangu Monastery in Richmond, B.C. The organizations are connected through their spiritual leader, Rinpoche.

Sitting with Mitchell around the kitchen table at Karma Tashi Ling, which is housed in a split-level home at 10502 70th Ave., are Charles Schweger, professor emeritus with the University of Alberta's department of anthropology, and resident lama Ani Kunsang, a nun who moved from Nepal in 2005 at the request of the society.

The group recalls their memories of how this small organization in Edmonton began.

Mitchell remembers the impact of his first visit with Rinpoche in London.

"It was Rinpoche's first visit to the West," recalls Mitchell, who then called England home. "I felt a good connection with Rinpoche and asked if I could be his student."

The group began meeting at the Oliver Community Centre and then at Usha Singh's home before renting a "poky little room in a basement on Whyte Avenue," recalls Mitchell. "We had to walk down a long forbidding corridor, down a set of stairs, and through janitor's room."

Schweger laughs.

"In retrospect it was embarrassing to have Rinpoche visit."

But having a group that could meet regularly under instruction from a great master was what really mattered.

It was in this humble location that Schweger found the group and rekindled his Buddhist practice through his connection to Rinpoche. Schweger, Mitchell and Singh are the founding members who remain with the society 25 years after its birth.

Schweger had been interested in Buddhism for many years. "In the early 1970s a group of us would jump into a VW van and head to Boulder, Colo., to hear Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, one of the first Tibetan Buddhist teachers in the West, teach."

Yet, aside from these trips, Schweger was without a teacher.

"You have to make a connection with the dharma, and you need some confidence and security in that connection. That can best be done with a teacher," he explains.

In the mid-1990s, Schweger began listening to a collection of tapes with English translations of many different lamas. "I sat down and listened to them, and the moment I heard Thrangu Rinpoche there was an instant connection. It was the clarity of his logic. I knew right then that he would be my teacher."

Then it was a matter of finding a group to study with. And amazingly, Schweger learned there was a group of Rinpoche's students right in Edmonton. Schweger recalls walking down Whyte Avenue on a snowy night and seeing a small sandwich board noting the group in a basement room. He's been a member ever since.

With Rinpoche living in Nepal and travelling the world, the group stayed connected through visits every few years. They had correspondence with Rinpoche and plugged along on their own through his guidance.

They worked from a framework of lineage prayers and practised meditation, and also travelled to Vancouver for Rinpoche's teachings. During such trips, they learned new practices such as Green Tara and Guru Rinpoche and built these into a regular practice.

Karma Tashi Ling ultimately moved to its current location, providing more space and the ability to host a resident lama. As the student base grew, the group requested that Rinpoche send them a nun. Schweger was instrumental in requesting a nun instead of a male lama.

"Women are generally more attracted to dharma," Schweger attests. "We felt we should support having a female teacher so that women could connect."

Rinpoche has a vast number of projects in Nepal, including the Thrangu Tara Abby in Kathmandu, Nepal. "We wanted to provide a nun with an opportunity to teach."

And so, in 2005, Ani Kunsang moved from Nepal to Edmonton at Rinpoche's request. Here she teaches meditation and deity practice. "We do both because people connect in different ways," says Kunsang. Classes are held every Sunday and Wednesday.

Ani (which means nun in Tibetan) Kunsang is happy that Rinpoche supports nuns so equally. "In Kathmandu there are many monasteries for lamas, but few nunneries."

Rinpoche provides equal education for monks and nuns. Nuns can do the three-year retreat (part of Kagyu practice to become a lama), learn Tibetan medicine, and do astrology.

Rinpoche has students around the globe. Schweger says he loves being part of a Sangha - or spiritual community - and feels that, with Rinpoche, there is a large web of interconnection. "And because we have a nun here in Edmonton, it makes Edmonton a unique place in Rinpoche's community."

The group is pleased to host Lama Pema Tsewang, one of Rinpoche's senior lamas, who is visiting the centre next week. Lama Pema is the abbot of the new Thrangu Monastery in Richmond, B.C. The building is the only traditional Tibetan monastery in the Pacific Northwest. It is helping to preserve Tibetan architecture and practices.

Lama Pema now presides over the monastery. He used to be the principle of Shree Mangal Dvip Boarding School in Kathmandu, Nepal, another of Rinpoche's projects. The school promotes education for Himalayan border children. Karma Tashi Ling does its part in supporting the school and Rinpoche's many projects.

"We are not just an isolated group doing our own thing," says Mitchell. "We try to interact with and support these projects."

Adds Schweger: "When you look at all Rinpoche's activities, it's mindboggling."

To learn more about Lama Pema Tsewang's visit, go to: karmatashiling.ca/