Bodhi Path Buddhist Center- Natural Bride Virginia

Matthew Mason

Southern Virginia, especially the rural areas, is far from a hub of the Buddhist religion. In the foothills of the mountains, in Natural Bridge, Va., there is a small temple belonging to a group of Karma Kagyu temples known as the Bodhi Path Buddhist Centers. Known as Bodhi Path Natural Bridge, the temple opened its doors in 1997 and, despite the temple itself being very small, it operates on around 45 acres of land. While each Bodhi Path temple has its own teacher and unique classes and events, they all have the same founder, leader, and basic foundational principles.

As a group, the Bodhi Path temple operates over forty temples across four different continents. The core curriculum is the same across all temples and centers. The lessons are based on the teachings of Shamar Rinpoche Mipham Chökyi Lödro, the 14th Shamarpa, a lineage holder of the Karma Kagyu school of Buddhism. He succeeded the 16th Shamarpa but assumed the title the 14th Shamarpa because it was believed he was a reincarnation of the original 14th. He was officially recognized as a spiritual leader of this lineage of Buddhism in 1956, when he was four years old. All Bodhi Path temples base their curriculum on a book compiled by the 14th Shamarpa called The Path to Awakening: A Commentary on Ja Chekawa Yeshé Dorjé’s Seven Points of Mind Training. It focuses on how to achieve awakening and liberation through the mind using meditation. The Bodhi Path temples believe that their teachings have followed an unbroken lineage path dating back to the time of the Buddha. Karma Kagyu is the second largest lineage in the Kagyu school of Buddhism.

The 14th Shamarpa founded the Bodhi Path group of temples in 1996. Based on his goals for the Bodhi Path centers, it is very clear he was a very liberal leader. He did not encourage most of his students to become monks or nuns, since he understood the difficulties of being a full-fledged monastic. He believed only a few select people could handle the lifestyle, but he did not want Buddhism to be inaccessible to those who wanted to be a layperson. While all his teachings are based on Kagyu principles, since the 14th Shamarpa believed they were the “most effective for taming the mind and deepening wisdom,” Bodhi Path temples describe themselves as non-sectarian. Much in the same way that the 14th Shamarpa wanted his teachings to be accessible to laypeople, he did not want to exclude people who identified as belonging to a different school of Buddhism. He also got involved in politics, authoring books on animal rights. He also advocated for democracies that gave power to the people and had welfare systems to take care of the needy.

The current spiritual leader of the Bodhi Path centers is the 17th Karmapa, Thaye Dorje, who succeeded the 14th Shamarpa in leading the Bodhi Path temples. The Karmapa is the only leader above the Shamarpa in the Karma Kagyu lineage. He was known to be the next Karmapa at a very young age, as it is believed his first words were him exclaiming to be the next Karmapa. He also focuses on inclusion and peace, and according to his official website, his goals are “empowering young people; meeting international leaders in the fields of spirituality, peace, conflict resolution, and education.” He oversees over 900 monasteries and temples, but the Bodhi Path temples remain separate.  

According to the Bodhi Path, any attempt to learn proper Buddhist technique should be done under the guidance of a qualified teacher. Teachers vary from temple to temple, hailing from multiple different continents. Not all the teachers are current or former monastics; many temples have lay leaders and teachers in keeping with the 14th Shamarpa’s ideals. Core practices focus on calming the mind through meditation to achieve peace, focus and stability. The final goal is to use this inner peace to peel back the ignorance and confusion blocking one’s mind from true liberation and peace. Once a practitioner has mastered the core practices, more complex meditation and prayers are studied in order to “purify negative actions, habitual veils and karmic obscurations; accumulate merit; develop compassion; and dedicate the merits of our positive actions for the benefit of all beings.” It is emphasized that an experienced teacher is needed to undertake these practices and the advanced ideas must be practiced regularly in order to properly learn and use.

The Bodhi Path Center temple in Natural Bridge, Va., is led by a former Buddhist monk named Tsony. He himself is not currently a monastic, which further demonstrates how open Bodhi Path temples are, including the one in Natural Bridge. Tsony used to be a monastic, but he gave up the renunciate lifestyle to focus on teaching. He is not a native of the area, spending most of his monastic life in France. To this day, some of his personal website, including some posted lectures, are written in French. Despite living at the temple in Natural Bridge, he clearly is still very connected to his French roots. On his website, he also has a “Dear Tsony” column where individuals can write in questions, many of which come from France. Given how much time he must focus on outside projects, it can be assumed he does not have a large quantity of local students. He’s been the instructor at the Natural Bridge temple since 2009, when the 14th Shamarpa recommended he and his wife focus on teaching proper Dharma in the United States. Tsony moving here due to the direction of the Shamarpa shows how connected this temple is to the greater tradition. The Natural Bridge temple is one of the smaller temples in the group, yet it is not ignored by leadership and still gets a very experienced and well-respected teacher. Tsony also showed how dedicated practitioners of the Karma Kagyu lineage of Buddhism are to the leadership of the faith. Despite no longer being a monastic, he still bases his life on the direction of the Shamarpa.

Tsony only offers two regular activities at the Bodhi Path temple in Natural Bridge, Va. One is called “Buddhism 101, Intro to Buddhism”, a class that meets every Sunday. The website emphasizes that are all welcome to attend the session, even beginners. The session only lasts an hour, but there is meet and greet afterwards. Participants are encouraged to stay after and to get to know one another and discuss the experience. On Tuesdays, Tsony leads an open discussion group. There is no predetermined topic for discussion and there is no requirement to attend the introductory class to come to the discussion. The temple does host a few in-depth events. In February, Tsony is leading a week-long retreat hosted by the temple at Natural Bridge. The retreat focuses on a prayer by the Third Karmapa. The temple wants to make the retreat as accessible as possible, so there is no charge to attend. They do ask, however, for participants to donate as much as they can afford.

There is no way to officially join the temple as a member, so there is no way to track if most attendees are immigrants from Buddhist-majority countries or converts who have always resided in America. However, given the only regular course is at the introductory level and the fact that a great amount of emphasis is placed on beginners being welcome, it is safe to assume many attendees of the temple did not grow up in a Buddhist environment. This would mean a large portion of temple visitors would be American converts to Buddhism.

Between the public materials Bodhi Path temples publish and Tsony’s own personal website, the temple does not seem to teach Buddhist cosmology. Every lesson and core principle is focused solely on meditation and self-discovery. There is no Buddhist worldview that is taught beyond tools one can use to perfect meditation and mindfulness. Teachers like Tsony would still be knowledgeable on the topic, given the over two decades he spent as a monk. However, given that the Bodhi Path temples are designed to be accessible to all potential practitioners, it makes sense the focus would not be on the more esoteric concepts, especially considering they have little ramification on the daily life of a temple member.

The temple at Natural Bridge, Va., is not the largest or most extravagant of Buddhist temples. However, it is still well supported by Karma Kagyu leadership. The temple does the best it can to spread Buddhist practice. Tsony does not care if you can support the temple financially, he’ll still gladly teach you lessons. He also does not care if you are an experienced practitioner, new to the faith, from a different Buddhist school or just simply interested in Buddhism, the temple will welcome you with open arms. The lessons are all focused on meditation, and the temple’s goal is simply to help as many people as possible learn proper meditation practice.