An Inside Look at the FPMT Masters Program

What is the Master’s Program and how does the Online Version differ from the Residential Version?

I should say that this discussion focuses on my personal experience with the online program so far, now into the third month. Any opinions should be viewed as my own but I try to reflect the spirit of our teacher, Geshe Tenzin Tenphel. It would be most helpful to have a similar set of questions and answers directed to a residential student.

The FPMT Masters Program (MP) in Buddhist Studies of Sutra and Tantra, is physically located at Lama Tzong Khapa Institute (ILTK), in Pomaia, Italy, but in the on line version, it is virtually located around the world. The MP is based on the traditional geshe studies program of Tibetan Gelug monastic universities. The residential study program is taught in Tibetan and translated into English and Italian for lay and ordained students.

The five subject, six year program is intended to train qualified non-Tibetan Dharma teachers. It is based on the teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni as commented and explained by scholars and meditators of India and Tibet. The current text is the Abhisamayalamkara by Maitreya. We will also study the Madhyamakavatara by Chandrakirti, the Abhidharmakosha by Vasubandhu, and study tantra in depth.

We began study of the Ornament of Clear Realizations in January 2008. This marked only the second time the MP has been conducted, and the first time with an on line component. The first class began in 1998 and graduated in 2003, under the teaching and leadership of Geshe Jampa Gyatso, who was asked by Lama Yeshe to create the program. I hope you will go to the website and read more about the history of the program and this wonderful teacher. Often we have photographs posted of ILTK, located in the heart of Tuscany. For an on line student, it is a lesson in tempering envy for the residential students! Our most excellent teacher is Geshe Tenzin Tenphel, and it will be a great pleasure to meet him and the ILTK staff in person at the earliest happy occasion.

A special mention and thank you must go to Ven Joan and all of her staff for pulling this together despite the sudden passing of Geshe Jampa Gyatso shortly before the second MP was to begin. And special thanks to our thoughtful and encouraging tutor, Patrick Lambert and Toh Sze Gee, our translator. And also, a big thank you to the FPMT, else we wouldn’t have this opportunity. There are articles in the February-March 2008 Mandala Magazine that may be consulted. For more complete information, including its history, I hope you will visit the program’s website at

What are the components of the online version?

There are several forums in which to pose questions and have other students and our generous and wise tutor answer. We have quizzes, about one per week, which are graded automatically by the computer. There are video review sessions, texts of the commentary and explanation, notes from the classes, and the most important component, audio files of the lessons themselves, which are typically five 2 hour lessons per week, and represents the oral transmission of our learning from Geshe La. Learning Tibetan becomes of greater interest when receiving this volume of teaching, although the Tibetan is translated into English on our audio files, and into English and Italian for residential students. We will likely build an online encyclopedia (wiki) at some point, and we have just had our first interactive global real time chat.

The most important parts of the online program are the same as for residents – study of the text, listening to the teachings, and discussing and meditating on them. In our current text, we study and understand in great detail, considering all the possible alternatives and explanations, the path to Buddhahood. We study it as has been taught to many generations of Tibetan Buddhist monks over hundreds of years.

What are the costs in time and money?

A monthly fee may be paid, but with the sliding dollar, an up front fee of 700 Euros was paid for the first course. This translated into over $1100 with bank fees, but time is the much greater factor than money. Some things, money still can’t buy.

One should not expect to pursue this program part time. Rather, it is a full time occupation, taking a minimum of 20-25 hours per week. It would indeed be a challenge to have a full time job and pursue the studies. As Geshe la has said, “all you have to do is eat, sleep, study… all else is a distraction.” Worry, work – these do not count in understanding the path! Now in reality, many on line students do have full time jobs, but one will be graded not only on quiz and exam results, but participation in the forums and activities. Plus, we must do Lam Rim meditation and retreats. I am studying as much as possible while working part time, as a return to full time work (for medical insurance and paying taxes, ah samsara!) seems hard to avoid in order to pay the bills in the United States. So, the better I can lay a foundation of thought now, hopefully the better later, and perhaps my study will be more efficient. (But we’ll have a story on this below.) It is hoped to convert to residential status at some point and to engage in study and retreat in Italy. Regardless of other activities, it’s what you put into it that determines what you will get out of it. No effort, no merit.

And you can not rush through this. In addition to the online forums, reviews, lessons, quizzes, commentary, video and audio files, supplemental texts, such as Hopkin’s Meditation on Emptiness (and Cutting through Appearances) and Lopez’s Study of Svatantrika, are used to understand the many schools, concepts, arguments, and qualums. We are taught the difference between dull and sharp faculties, and to pursue each logical point thoroughly, to examine refutations and alternatives, before accepting something as truth. We study the true meaning of emptiness and there is much to this topic! Find emptiness, find the Buddha!

Is it hard?

As such, I for one, having had an academic background in science and math, but not philosophy and logic, must often read and re-read sentences and paragraphs many times to understand something. After listening to a lesson, and studying the commentary and explanation, going back and forth between Lopez and Hopkins, and consulting the review notes, slowly sometimes, but ah! OK. Yes. Something is learned, understood. The hope is that the faculties in logic and debate will improve as we go along. But this can not be hurried! Likely someone with academic training in theology and philosophy will not need the intensive jump starting I feel the need to do, nor would one raised in a Tibetan monastery!

Is there something the teacher said that has a lasting impact and may help those of us decide if the program is right for us?

Geshe Tenzin Tenphel is at the same time a stern and serious Tibetan teacher, and someone with a great sense of humor who will quickly laugh and break into stories in English. Geshe La once said there was a traveler in Tibet who wanted to go to Lhasa. He asked a peasant for directions, and the peasant answered. The traveler asked, “how long does it take?” “Five days if you do not hurry.” The traveler asked, “but I am in a hurry! How long if I hurry?” The peasant said “twenty-five days.” “Twenty five days! I don’t believe you.” So off went the traveler and rushing along, his horse weakened… the pace slowed, much had to be done now, many problems arose… but the traveler finally gets to Lhasa. It has taken twenty five days. “I don’t believe it!” He performs his errands, prepares for the return. He asks a city dweller, “How long will it take me to return?” “Five days if you do not hurry, twenty five days if you do.”

So, if we do not hurry, we’ll complete our program in six years.

How can I decide if it is right for me?

This is a wonderful opportunity to learn and to practice. It is indeed substance for many lifetimes. I hope everyone will look into this program and consider joining. It’s always good not to have expectations, such as that in six years, one will be a great teacher. Indeed, it is moment to moment, you do something because you like the results of how you spend this very moment. Examine some of the texts, especially the supplemental texts by Hopkins and Lopez mentioned above- see if this interests you. The root text is one thing, and the commentary, explanation, and understanding are many more! And there are no shortcuts. New students may be admitted at the beginning of each text, roughly every 15 months or so, but examine the website and make inquiries. Since this is the first time the online program has been conducted, changes may occur. It is not clear for example if one could start with tantra without having done the required groundwork in sutra.

For those who would like to otherwise pursue study of the Ornament of Clear Realizations, a near by and in person option exits. Wilson Hurley will teach a preliminary class starting on April 6, 2008, and then Khensur Rinpoche will offer teachings on this text at the Mahayana Sutra and Tantra Center of Washington D.C. soon after.

Many Blessings and Much Love,


— Posted by Tal Carawan


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