Why do monks and nuns need to have big monasteries and libraries and assembly halls? This is a question raised by some Westerners first encountering Tibetan Buddhism and it is a valid one. Why do people wanting to devote their lives to the life of the spirit waste their time on material concerns? As is made clear in the following letter, written by Thrangu Rinpoche after his home monastery in Tibet was reduced to rubble, the large Buddhist monasteries of Tibet do much more than simply host the bodies of people wishing to dedicate their lives to spiritual practice. They ensure that the insight and wisdom cultivated by exceptional practitioners can be passed from generation to generation. The care for the physical environment of the monastic institution thus forms a part of our caring for others - for the generations to come after us, and is far from distinct from the main aim of Tibetan Buddhist spiritual practice: to develop our own capacities for the purpose of being able to fully and perfectly support others as they develop their own.
Letter fronm Thrangu Rinpoche
Jyekundo in Tibet is a small and sparsely populated area, but it is a place where there are many Tibetan people, and there are also many monasteries. At Thrangu Monastery in Jyekundo, many of the lamas and monks—both those abroad and those on site—have put in tremendous efforts for many years. These efforts have not just been in terms of external things; they have also put effort into spiritual practice. In terms of study and contemplation, a monastic college for the study of texts and philosophy was founded. It gradually grew and there formed a body of students and scholars, who are the foundation of the teachings. A primary school to provide basic education for young students had also been built.
In terms of meditation, a retreat center for the practice of the Six Yogas of Naropa was built where monks engaged in practice. Another retreat center for the practice of the deities who purify the lower realms, Sarvavid Vairochana and Protector Akshobhya, had been restored and retreatants were doing the practices of those deities. A Mahakala retreat center was built during the time of Karmapa Thekchok Dorje (1798-1868) and contained a statue of Mahakala. Here, daily practices had been held for many generations. In addition, there was a large new temple where daily services were held.
Now there has been the terrible earthquake in Jyekundo, Qinghai, and these structures have all been ruined. Additionally, many monks have passed away in the earthquake. This is a great tragedy and a great obstacle. Please think of this and make good prayers on the behalf of all those who passed away. If you gather merit by helping with the relief and restoration, it will be helpful for the world in general and in particular prevent the Dharma from disappearing. It is important that the lineage of teaching and practice not wane: Without a lineage of teaching and practice, the Dharma would perish.
Sometimes people might think that temples and monasteries are not all that important. However, there are both transient sentient beings and the lasting external environment. With sentient beings, there might be many for a while, including great scholars and meditators. Great lamas might appear. There may be many members of the Sangha, but just as water flows downstream, fifty, sixty, seventy, or eighty years later they will all pass away and a new generation will come. When this happens, even if there were a strong lineage of Dharma in the previous generation, we do not really know whether that lineage would continue in the next.
The way that the lineage can continue from generation to generation is to have a good, stable outer environment. When there is the external environment of a monastery with a shrine, retreat center, and monastic college, then due to that place, the Sangha, great lamas, and great meditators might pass away but the continuity of their activity will remain present there.
This is why restoring monasteries is crucial. If the monasteries fall into ruins, the environment declines as well and the inhabitants gradually disappear. Buddhism would not be able to remain long in this world. But if a monastery continues to exist, the great lamas and masters can perform vast activity for the Dharma during their entire lives. A group of students will gather; the lamas will teach the students; and they will practice. Thus gradually the students will spend the first part of their lives studying and practicing the Dharma and the latter part upholding, protecting, and spreading Buddhism. When that generation comes to its end, a new generation can continue that work, upholding, protecting, and spreading the teachings, which can thus remain. This is why temples and the Sangha are so very important.
If sponsors can make contributions and help in either large or small ways, that would be wonderful. We spend this life gathering wealth and possessions, and sometimes this can be meaningful, but sometimes there is the danger that this might become the grounds for conflict and dispute. For that reason, I ask all the faithful benefactors to help in any way you can.
—Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche