Geshe Ngawang Wangyal, a Kalmyk-Mongolian guru who received his Buddhist training in Kalmykia and in Tibet, established the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center in 1958 as the first Tibetan Buddhist dharma center in the West. Since his arrival to the United States, when few had even heard the name ‘Tibet,' there has been a remarkable growth in American's familiarity and understanding of Tibetan Buddhism. Geshe Wangyal played a vital role in this transformation through his tremendous efforts to teach American students and to sponsor Tibetan scholars to come to this country.
Geshe-la immigrated to the United States from India in 1955 in order to serve as a priest for the Kalmyk-Mongolian community that had been established after the Second World War in Howell Township, New Jersey. To respond to the religious needs of this community, as well as the needs of Tibetans in the greater New York area, he built a monastery in Howell with his own funds earned through teaching during his first years in this country. Beginning in 1962, Geshe-la sponsored many Tibetan monastic scholars to come to the US and to assist with monastery activities by giving teachings and performing religious ceremonies. He also took on resident American students, who tutored the monks in English language in exchange for classes in Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan language. Two of them, Jeffrey Hopkins, professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, and Robert Thurman of Columbia, went on to become leading scholars in Tibetan Buddhist studies. During the sixties, more American men and women came to study with Geshe-la and the Tibetan monks at the monastery. To adjust to this new situation and to accommodate his desire to enter into partial retirement, Geshe-la bought some land for a retreat house in Washington, New Jersey in 1967 and left the monastery in Howell in the care of Tibetan monks.
In Washington, Geshe-la received a new influx of American students. Among them, Joshua Cutler arrived in 1970 and Diana Cutler in 1972. Geshe-la adapted the norms of living at his retreat house in order to meet the needs of his lay students, while retaining many of the traditions of Tibetan monasteries. Because the Center originated in the Kalmyk community of central New Jersey and had both Mongolian and Tibetan monks, its way of life incorporated many of the customs of both cultures. Yet, Geshe-la was an exceptionally innovative teacher who did not encourage his students to adopt foreign customs. He tried to convey to his students a basic knowledge of the many facets of Tibetan Buddhism and stressed that studying the teachings is the most important task for new Buddhists of the West, rather than adopting monastic vows as was traditional in Tibet and Mongolia. Geshe-la taught in English; however, to deepen his students' understanding of the teachings he encouraged the majority to speak and read the Tibetan language and to become translators. Thus, his retreat house in Washington became a center for learning about Tibetan Buddhism and he encouraged many of his students to go into academia to earn doctorates.
In addition to his teaching activities, Geshe-la was actively involved in envisioning and creating TBLC physical facilities. After building the Retreat House in 1968, he worked with his students to construct the Schoolhouse in 1975. In 1979, he sold the monastery in Howell and brought the Tibetan monks to a newly purchased building in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Four months before his death on January 30, 1983, he offered this building to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in whom he had great faith, by donating it to His Holiness's charitable organization, The Tibet Fund. He then arranged for the resident monks to stay at the Washington site. Geshe-la's vision also guided the construction of the TBLC temple. Just prior to his death, he instructed his longtime students, Joshua and Diana Cutler, whom he designated as his administrative successors, to build this temple in memory of his student and patron, Alice Scudder Rayburn, who had died six moths earlier. He also wanted it to serve as a residence for His Holiness the Dalai Lama whenever he visited the United States.
The temple was completed in September of 1984, at which time His Holiness the Dalai Lama consecrated it. This was one of six times that TBLC has had the great honor of receiving His Holiness. His Holiness gave his first religious teaching in the United States at TBLC in 1979 and returned in 1981, 1987, 1989, 1990, and 1998. On all of these visits except for 1990, His Holiness gave discourses on Buddha's teachings to large assemblies of Americans, Kalmyk-Americans, and Tibetan-Americans. In 1998, almost 5,500 people assembled on TBLC property to hear His Holiness speak.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been an important presence throughout TBLC's history. In keeping with Mongolian and Tibetan traditions, Geshe Wangyal always regarded His Holiness as the spiritual head of TBLC. When the Center was first formed, Geshe-la asked His Holiness to give it a Tibetan name, and His Holiness chose "Labsum Shedrup Ling," The Center for Teaching and Practicing the Three Trainings [Ethical Discipline, Meditative Concentration, and Wisdom]. In preparation for his death, Geshe-la also consulted His Holiness with regard to changes at the Center.
Since Geshe-la's passing, Joshua and Diana Cutler have assumed the responsibility for running the Center and His Holiness's spiritual advice has continued to direct TBLC activities. During his 1984 visit, His Holiness recommended that the Center change its English name from the original "Lamaist Buddhist Monastery of America" to the "Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center" in order to more clearly reflect that its main activity is to teach Tibetan Buddhism. He advised that the Center hold twice-monthly prayer sessions and suggested that, since the more qualified teachers were needed at the monasteries in India, the Center should sponsor them only for short stays.
On his visit in 1990, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, further suggested a TBLC curriculum that follows the method of teaching new Buddhists indicated in the writings of the future Buddha, Maitreya, as revealed to the great Indian scholar and adept, Asanga. This method lays out the philosophical foundations before giving instructions in how to practice the teachings. In 1991, visiting scholar, Geshe Yeshe Tapkay, gave a full exposition of this approach, which has informed all TBLC classes since that time.
TBLC continues to uphold Geshe Wangyal's tradition of providing instruction in the basics of Buddhism, sponsoring Tibetan monastic scholars to give teachings, and pursuing scholarly activities aimed at making Tibetan Buddhism more accessible to Western students. As of the year 2000, TBLC became open to the public every Sunday for prayer and meditation in the morning and class in the afternoon. Visiting and resident teachers, both Tibetan and Western, have collaborated to provide regular classes and special seminars. In addition, from 1992 to 2004, TBLC sponsored the complete translation of Tsong-kha-pa's Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (Lam rim chen mo), bringing together fourteen leading Buddhist scholars from around the world. During these twelve years, TBLC regular classes and seminars stemmed from this great text, which TBLC now uses as its main textbook for explaining Buddhist theory and practice.