How it all began
Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa
One of the oldest FPMT centers is in a beautiful old castle in Pomaia, Italy. Massimo Corona recalls how it all began at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa.
It all started around the fall of 1976 when Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche were in Italy for the Second Meditation Course there. We rented an old hotel, which had not been used for at least two or three years. It was near a lake in Tartavalle in the Alps, north of Milano.
Piero Cerri, Claudio Cipullo, and I were the course organizers. One night, halfway through the course, Lama Yeshe called us into his room. It was quite late, and I remember I was exhausted.
Lama was lying down on his couch, and he said, “Okay, are we doing the center or not?” At that time, Claudio, Piero, and I were studying debate in Switzerland with Geshe Rabten, so Lama Yeshe wanted to be sure that we really wanted to start a center. We said, “Yes, Lama,” and he asked, “How do you want to do it?” Piero answered, “Well, we could come down once a month.” And Lama said immediately, “No, no, no! No way! These people are new to the Dharma; they need to have you here full time; otherwise, we make no center!” That was a big thing for us; it meant we had to interrupt our studies.
Anyway, we said, “Yes, Lama,” and he said, “Okay, which name do we give? You can choose between Atisha Center or Lama Tzong Khapa Center.” So we chose Lama Tzong Khapa. Then he said, “Okay, now, who is going to be the director, who’s going to be the secretary, and who is going to be the spiritual program coordinator? Let’s be democratic, let’s vote: I vote for Massimo as director, who do you vote for?”
And of course what could the other two say? Nothing!
So that’s how it started. We had to go back and tell Geshe Rabten we were leaving the school.
But even before that, during the course, Lama Yeshe had asked me to take him to see my parents. He knew my mother, but he didn’t know my father, who actually had a very bad opinion of Lama Yeshe. He thought that Lama was in it for the money.
So on the weekend we drove to my parents’ country house. As soon as we arrived, Lama Yeshe immediately started to talk to my father, sitting with him outside on the veranda. In less than an hour, my father was crying. With real tears he said, “Lama, whatever you want to do I will help.”
In the following months, I searched for a suitable place for a center in different parts of Italy. Areas near Venice were too expensive, Piemonte was a bit too foggy, and central Italy was better. Tuscany was beautiful, and also it’s in the middle of the country, an equal distance from the north and from Rome.
The place we found near Pisa was ideal for us because it was immediately livable, and it didn’t need tremendous renovation right away. It was a castle in the small village of Pomaia, made of big stones with a tower, and we could see the ocean from it. It was probably built around 1830 because we found a brick that had that date on it. But it was built in different phases so maybe something had existed before. It belonged to a noble family called Ciampolini, and originally it had 2,000 hectares of land.
During the Second World War it was a command post of both the German Army and the partisans. We found a big machine gun with lots of ammunition plastered into double ceilings, and many, many bullet holes. They must have shot a lot of people around there.
It was sold over the years in pieces, and eventually it was sold to a marquise in the early 1950s. When her son died nearby in a terrible car accident, she hated the place, and she sold it to a group of farmers who kept the land and eventually sold just the castle with a few hectares around to the man who eventually sold it to us. Negotiations were very difficult: The owner was really dishonest, but in the end it became ours in May 1977.
On the first night, I slept there alone. There I was, the director, and I was the only person in the center.
Slowly, people came. We started the renovations by painting the old walls. In the fall of 1977 my father kept his promise and gave us the money, not only for the purchase but also for most of the cost of the remodeling. Other people gave money, but between 85 and 90 percent of all the money was given by my family.
That fall we held the first course, even though we didn’t have access to the entire building because there were still tenants. The previous owner had not told them to leave because he wanted their rent money. However, after witnessing our course, and our lamas, the tenants left immediately because they felt this was all too weird for them!
The building was divided into holiday flats, and we literally had to tear apart almost the entire content of the castle and reconstruct it; it was not easy because it was such an old building with very thick walls ….