A New Term Begins at the Prajna Institute

Prajna Institute

Another few months have passed and a new term at the Prajna Institute starts in a few days. I’m looking forward to starting my classes with a new round of students and the older students that I’ve been working with over the last year or two. As I’ve mentioned from time to time, I’m an instructor in a distance-based Buddhist seminary called “The Prajna Institute”. I’ve lost track of how many terms I’ve been teaching and I’m feeling disinclined to double-check but it has been for much of the last two years or so.

PI started out as a training program for students of my own teacher, Rev. Myo Gak Foster, in order to guarantee a certain amount of basic study and training for those working towards ordination with him. Over time, the program was expanded to be less focused on our own lineage and to be more of a pan-Mahayana seminary. We have students from a number of different Zen traditions, Pure Land schools, and Tibetan Vajrayana. Many of those studying in the program are not working towards ordination with us (in fact, that could probably be said for all of the non-Zen folks) since we only ordain for our own lineage. These students come to us because they want to deepen their understanding of the Dharma as part of their own practice or in support for a variety of personal goals. For example, we have at least one student who is a Hospice worker and this person’s practice plays a key role in their day-to-day work caring for the dying. In another couple of cases, we have students who are leaders within or leaders of small sanghas who feel a need to strengthen the depth of their knowledge to support their roles.

We are very definitely not a diploma mill or some kind of rubber stamp process designed to give people more merit badges to collect. This is not one of those programs where you’re given a degree without having to do any actual academic or personal work in a few weeks or months. We have a system of two month terms with a month break in between that lasts over the course of at least two years (and often more) of regular study. During the school terms students spend a pretty fair amount of time reading texts, responding to questions about their understanding of the text, and writing papers. This is for the scholastically oriented classes. Additionally, we have practicums where students work with instructors on developing a regular meditation practice and work through a program of practices designed to introduce these students to methods that they can then use as the basis of their own practice. While not as hard as, say, working on a doctorate in neuroscience, it is at least as difficult as other academic programs in which I’ve participated. My own Humanities master’s degree was done through California State University, Dominguez Hills in a program which is now about 40 years old as a distance-based program. The work we have students do at PI is definitely on par with much of the work that I had to do at CSUDH, the primary difference being that I finished off my work there with a 90+ page thesis but had no practicums.

I mention this because I want to both encourage people interested in a program like this to participate but to also let people know that it is actually work. I can think of a few instances where students have been surprised by the amount of actual expected work and, in some cases, have left the program to go elsewhere as a result of this work without fully engaging with the program. We set high standards and demand regular interaction with folks as we work through our terms.

For those of us teaching in the program, this is done as a labor of love, a kind of Karma Yoga. We offer our time and energy as part of our Dharma practice without renumeration. While not all of the people in the program go on to ordination, all of the ordinands in the Great Cloud Zen Society are participants in this program.

If any of this sounds interesting to you, please check out the Prajna Institute site or contact me and I can answer questions. We’ll be having our Fall retreat in Maine in a few months and I’m hoping to see many students (and non-students) of PI there. Until then, we have the regular process of terms as people go through the program.