Tour of the Institute

Beauty and Meritorious ActionTour Photo

In accord with its founding purposes, the Nyingma Institute has sought to present the teachings in surroundings that reflect harmony, balance, and appreciation of spiritual values. Beginning with the work in 1973 that transformed a rundown fraternity building into a place for study and quiet reflection, the Institute’s rooms and grounds have been steadily improved to provide a supportive meditative environment that combines traditional symbols and colors associated with enlightened awareness, with the natural beauty of flowers, trees, and pond, and sweeping vistas of the San Francisco Bay.

The Institute occupies a commanding site above the northeast corner of the University of California campus, above the Euclid shopping area at the university’s north gate. The Institute buildings offer views to the south and west over Berkeley to San Francisco Bay. The Golden Gate Bridge is at the center of the westward view, the focal point of beautiful sunsets over San Francisco Bay. To the east, a hillside rises steeply just beyond our meditation garden. Almost daily, deer can be seen grazing on its grassy slopes.

The Institute’s main building, four floors high and about 14,000 square feet in size, is accessed by arching wisteria-bordered stairways. Towering above the street below, the Institute is reminiscent of hillside monasteries in Tibet. A plaque on the front steps recalls the building’s original construction in 1912, and another plaque in the entry hall records its dedication as a fraternity house in 1932.

The porch at the top of the staircase leads to the main entrance and to rooms built on each end of the porch. The room on the north serves as a conference area and office where students can meet privately with instructors and advisors. It is also used as a staging area for the sacred art projects. The room to the south provides a place where volunteers and students sew prayer flags and work on other sacred art and prayer wheel projects.

The main entrance opens into a spacious reception area. To the left is “Manjushri Vihara,” the Institute’s faculty library, containing The Nyingma Edition of the bKa’-’gyur and bsTan-’gyur, the complete Tibetan Canon and its catalogue, a comprehensive collection in Tibetan of the fundamental teachings of Buddhism. Thousands of other books, including a major collection of the fundamental teachings of Buddhism, line its shelves. A bookstore next to the library provides students with texts used in classes, translations of Sutras and Shastras, works by prominent Tibetan masters, histories, and all of Dharma Publishing’s books. To the right of the reception area, a large dining room offers a serene setting for meals. To the west, the dining room connects with a well-equipped kitchen specializing in gourmet vegetarian food. A door on the south opens to a long glass-walled porch lined on one side with prayer wheels.

Directly south of the main building, our second campus building faces both Highland Place and Hearst Avenue. For many years, it was a dark brown-shingle rooming house next to the Institute’s back entrance. Dilapidated and nearly hidden from view by a fence in back and apartment buildings in front, the house, built about 1903, needed a great deal of work. The Institute acquired the property in September 1998 and began a thorough reconstruction that included raising the entire structure an additional story in height. Completed in October, 2001, the new building has magnificent views of the San Francisco Bay and measures more than 6,000 square feet on three floors.

Both the Institute’s buildings are painted in a rich yellow hue, with trim and highlights in ochre, red, brown, green, and blue. Prayer flags fly atop both buildings, as well as in the small meditation garden between them.

The ground floors of both buildings contain rooms for classes and meditation practice. The new and largest classroom, located in the “New House,” spans more than 1,200 square feet and can be partitioned into three smaller classrooms. A pleasant reading room on the floor above is well stocked with copies of the books and materials used in Institute courses.

The large meditation room in our main building is painted in traditional Tibetan colors, predominantly red and blue. Copper-sheathed prayer wheels nearly four feet in height turn next to a small altar at one end of the room. The walls are lined with Tibetan paintings (thankas) and ringed with hundreds of tsa-tsas (clay votive images). A smaller classroom in this area accommodates language, history, and philosophy classes as well as medium-size practice classes. A private meditation room for residents, with a large, continuously-turning prayer wheel (installed in 1974) and tsa-tsas lining the walls provides an intimate space for individual meditation practice.

Residents and participants in retreats live in twenty-three rooms on the second and third floors of the main building and twelve rooms on the upper floors of the new house. The rooms oriented to the east overlook the meditation garden and the hillside behind the main building, while rooms oriented to the south and west enjoy sweeping views of the San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate and the Oakland Bay bridges, and the clock tower and other buildings of the University of California.

In the meditation garden behind the main building, a huge prayer wheel is housed in an eight-sided structure. A stone path around the wheel provides for circumambulation and walking meditation practices. A pond arcs round the wheel on two sides. The pond reflects the ever-turning prayer wheel, while brightly colored fish dart in and out among water lilies. A small waterfall cascades into the pond from a raised platform that also supports a golden enlightenment Stupa, an offering built by community members and dedicated to Tarthang Tulku’s longevity.

Engraved copper plaques describing the meaning of the prayer wheel and Stupa line the path on the other side of the pond, which leads to wooden benches and tables and circles around a small rose garden. Here students can contemplate traditional Buddhist forms in a contemplative setting surrounded by the beauty of nature.

A Japanese-style gate at the south end of the meditation garden leads to the path to the New House. Just outside this garden gate, a small project building is used by volunteers working on sacred art projects. Facing it is a wooden deck, perfect for private contemplation and small class groups in the summer months.

The New House is linked to the main building by paths on two levels. One leads from the main floor of the Institute building to the ground floor of the new house, where the large classroom is located. This path also gives access to an office and two large workrooms, and to a large terrace with a western exposure.

The second, higher path has an enlightenment Stupa gracing the hillside above it. This path, intended for residents, leads from the meditation garden through a quiet courtyard to a doorway on the east side of the house. Inside the doorway, a hallway leads through a kitchenette to the reading room at the center of the residential area. Around the reading room are six residential rooms. Six more residential rooms are located on the upper floor. Most of these rooms are reserved for those on retreat, who find the small, single person room comfortable and admire the glorious views outside almost every window.

The residential rooms in the New House face in all four directions. Each is different in layout, color, orientation, and view: the meditation garden to the north; deer grazing on the forested hillside to the east; a long view over Berkeley, Oakland, and the San Francisco Bay to the south; and the Golden Gate Bridge to the west.