Alan Molloy is a medical practitioner. Apart from running his own very busy general practice, he spends time working at a local geriatric center and as a resident doctor at Melbourne’s largest cancer hospital. Until recently, he also lectured in comparative religion and personal development at a Melbourne tertiary educational institute.
The work doesn’t stop when Alan gets home. Home is Tara Institute, where he has lived for the past nine years in a community of some 35 residents. At Tara, Alan is one of a pool of teachers who lead weekly introduction to Buddhism classes, and occasionally travel to regional centers in Victoria to lead weekend courses. As a student, Alan attends the weekly teachings given by Tara institute’s resident lama, Geshe Doga, as well as special teachings such as the 14-week commentary on Lama Tsongkhapa’s Praise to Dependent Arising given last year, and as many of the regular weekend courses he can get to.
Last year Alan was instrumental in setting up a publishing group at the center, which he continues to coordinate. And this year Alan is one of the Melbourne coordinators for the September visit to Australia of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Alan’s first contact with Tibetan Buddhism occurred in 1975 when, at the age of 19, he saw a poster at the University of Melbourne advertising a talk by a Tibetan lama at a suburban library. He had already learned something of Buddhism from a pioneer teacher of Buddhism in Melbourne, Len Bullen, whom he had sought out on the advice of his martial arts instructor.
“The thought of meeting a Tibetan lama was spicy enough to lure me away from the environs of the university,” says Alan. “But when I got there, my hackles were raised by the volume of Nepalese handicrafts in the audience. I thought to myself, ‘I’m in the wrong place. What am I doing among these hippies?’ Then the lama arrived – he was diminutive, slender, with a self-effacing manner.”
That lama was Lama Zopa Rinpoche. Alan was so taken by the teaching that, on and off, he began attending classes at a small suburban house – the first Tara house. In 1979, while on holiday in Nepal with a friend, he ended up at Kopan Monastery. It was then, he says, that he “really became a Buddhist, taking refuge and precepts” and adopted his first practice of not killing.
On his return to Melbourne, Alan began attending teachings at the relocated Tara House, which by this time had its first resident Tibetan lama, Geshe Dawo. Tara House’s first translator Kalsang Tsering – fondly remembered by Alan as a “lovely man” – introduced him to the study of the Tibetan language.
In 1981 Geshe Dawo initiated what came to be known as the Study Group. Not only was this “delightful, gentle, kind man” the first lama to give extended teachings in Melbourne, he also presented the Tara House students with a problem – how to look after a lama. “We had no conception of what their needs were,” recalls Alan. “We were awestruck and unsure of ourselves, which was partly a reflection of our own lack of maturity. People in the West often get involved with Dharma because they’re a bit lost, as we were then.”
In 1985 Geshe Doga took over from Geshe Dawo, who returned to India. Alan clearly feels a strong devotion towards Geshe Doga, and believes that Geshe-la provides Tara Institute students with very practical guidance through his obvious grasp of the realities of day to day life. “Geshe Doga has a very good understanding of Western language and lifestyle – he knows a lot about football, cricket and politics. His teachings are always related back to everyday life, yet he is a master in the Gelugpa lineage and of Madhyamika philosophy. In Sera Monastery he would have lamas for students, but in Melbourne he’s got us. We are so lucky!”
In 1985, Alan went to Switzerland for a Kalachakra initiation from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and then followed Lama Zopa on his world tour. He was fortunate enough to be present when Lama Zopa first met Lama Osel at the Osel Ling retreat center in Spain. “To see a grown man show such respect and devotion to a young child is something you never see in the West. It’s just another one of those shocks you get in Buddhism.”
Then followed five months working at Dharamsala Children’s Hospital in India. And after that it was on to London to train as a medical specialist. According to Alan, his future looked comfortable – “I had a good career and life was rosy.” However, just as he was setting into his new life, a message came from Lama Zopa via fellow Tara House member, Peter Guiliano. Would Alan return to Melbourne and become spiritual program coordinator for Tara House? Alan knew this was a turning point: stay in London and pursue “fantastic power and wealth!” or return to an unknown future. He flew back to Australia and moved into the hayloft at Tara House.
By this stage, Tara House had become too small to accommodate the growing number of students. By chance, another center member was walking through a leafy Melbourne suburb when she saw an auction board in front of a large, 19th-century mansion on an acre and a half of land owned by the Catholic Church. The building had been converted into a hostel for disabled children and had a chapel, which could readily be converted to a gompa.
But the cost terrified everyone. Alan recalls talking on the phone to another member, George Farley, who told Alan that he sounded depressed. Although he had felt worried and anxious, he was shocked to hear the word “depressed.” He followed George’s advice to “walk outside, eat an apple and enjoy the sunshine.”
According to Alan, buying what has now become Tara Institute was at the time “… an extraordinary leap in the perception of our potential. It’s provided us with a powerful basis for the transmission of Buddhadharma in the West. And we’ve done it without any large benefactors, but with the combined effort of thousands of steady plodders who have contributed over the years.” He feels the “steady plodders” are the key to Tara Institute’s success – “dogged, persevering, no drama, no living in caves, [they] keep working, studying, keep helping other students.”
Indeed, the past 10 years has seen Tara Institute become one of the FPMT’s largest centers. Its weekly program of spiritual teachings includes Monday night introductory classes, a Tuesday night course in Buddhist philosophy, the Study Group, taught by Geshe Doga, and his less formal Wednesday night talk. There are weekend courses and special teachings, initiations and pujas throughout the year. During a busy week, 300 people may pass through the gompa.
The institute also runs healing courses for people with long-term illnesses, and courses for volunteers to provide support to ill and aged people. It also supports local community organizations and has fundraising events.
Just as Tara Institute was purchased by the efforts of a large number of people, Alan believes that the success of the Study Group rests on the consistent effort of a large base of people who manage to fit study into a normal family and working life. “Through the Study Group, Tara Institute is able to provide the community with many people able to talk about Dharma in a wide variety of settings – to the young, old, ill and healthy,” says Alan. This facility includes providing visiting teachers to schools and small groups in regional centers throughout the state of Victoria.
While no longer the spiritual program coordinator at Tara Institute, Alan has been contributing in other ways. To complement the weekly teachings by Geshe Doga, Alan initiated the Publishing Group last year, which produces edited transcripts of each week’s teachings for those who attend. The work involved is considerable, especially when there are three teachings in a week, as happened during part of 1995. A great believer in the benefits of information technology, Alan has setup an efficient desktop system for managing and publishing the transcripts, and he has encouraged and helped train a large group of volunteers to transcribe, check, edit and use the programs. And his competence in Tibetan and in Buddhist philosophy means that he is constantly on call to check the edited transcripts for accuracy in Dharma terminology and meaning.
In his work as a doctor, Alan is confronted with death on a weekly, and even daily, basis. He believes that in an aging Western society, which increasingly needs to come to terms with age-related illness and death, there will be a huge need for city-based centers like Tara Institute to provide support.
“Old age is a sequence of losses – youth, vigor, parents, spouse, children, health, mobility, continence. Death, impermanence and karma are relevant to our aging society. What’s important for people is to have an explanation as to why there is death. Is there anything after death?
“Death is often preceded by ill health, which means you are unable to engage in practices. So it’s important to think about it now while we are fit and healthy. I am lucky in my profession, I see it all the time. I am ceaselessly reminded of it. It gives me energy for my practice. Westerners need to understand death and impermanence. Lama Zopa often impresses this upon us. Understanding death and impermanence enables you to fly through the day, and that’s the opposite of what people usually think.
“But when your own teacher dies, you are flung into your own beliefs about reincarnation.” Alan was referring to the death of Geshe Dhargyey, with whom he felt a strong connection, in New Zealand last year. “Now I’m waiting for him. There’s a surety in my mind that I will meet him again.” For Alan, this certainty makes the grief tolerable.
This year, Alan is being kept busy coordinating major public events associated with the forthcoming visit to Melbourne of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He was involved with the two previous tours of His Holiness to Australia. In the 1982 tour “I placed the chair on which the Dalai Lama was to sit on the stage of the Camberwell Civic Centre!”
“Five years later, when I was program director, His Holiness’s representative from the Office to Tibet knocked on the door at Tara Institute.” When Alan answered it, the representative said, “I remember you. You helped in the 1982 tour. You put the chair on the stage!” Alan says he remembers thinking, “If this is what one of the blokes who hangs around the Dalai Lama can do, imagine what the Dalai Lama himself can do!”
When the 1992 tour was being planned, Alan wanted to get more involved, “even to get people just be see his face.” During the 1992 visit, His Holiness addressed the biggest ever crowd in the West – more than 20,000 people at the national Tennis Centre in Melbourne. “They went away with openness, hope, joy and respect for themselves and others. That is an amazing thing to give people. It ripples out to others, having an effect on society. One event had that effect!”
As a result of the overwhelming public response during that visit, the Australian Prime Minister met with His Holiness, and agreed to the establishment of a Tibet Information Office in Canberra, the country’s capital.
Buddhism is said to be Australia’s fastest growing religion, with hundreds of thousands of followers, a significant enough trend in a population of 18 million. FPMT is just one of the many Buddhist organizations flourishing here. A handful of Australians, who were among the first wave of Western visitors to Kopan in the early 1970s, established Chenrezig Institute in Queensland in 1974, then Tara soon after. Now there are 13 FPMT centers, four of them – soon to be five – with resident Tibetan lamas.
His Holiness accepted the FPMT’s invitation to return to Australia, and is scheduled to come in September, mainly to confer the Kalachakra initiation in Sydney–the first time ever in the southern hemisphere. He will also visit Canberra and Melbourne. “This time it will be fun. We now know that His Holiness will definitely be loved and cherished by the Australian people, and will be welcomed back like an old friend. Many will meet him and their lives will change.”
Alan draws great inspiration from the lamas. “They never stop working for others,” he says. “If you really appreciated the rare opportunity of being with the lamas, you would take more advantage of it. There is an immediate effect. You often go into a teaching feeling tired, and come out feeing more relaxed and in control. It’s almost guaranteed.”