History of the South Carolina Dharma Group
The South Carolina Dharma Group originated in 2000 with a group of students who had interest in Tibetan Buddhism. Originally we traveled to Charleston, SC to study with the Venerable Geshe Dakpa Topgyal, the Resident Teacher of the Charleston Tibetan Society, a group studying Tibetan Buddhism in the Gelukpa tradition (the tradition now headed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama). The Columbia students asked Geshe Topgyal to come to Columbia to teach us in Columbia, and a small group of seven or eight students began meeting regularly with Geshe Topgyal for worship and teachings, using Sterling Garden Center in Columbia SC as meeting place.
In 2001, as our group increased in size to 10 or 15, we began to rent the library of the Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship building for the teachings and worship. We incorporated as a religious organization, began contributing regular dues, and elected our first Board of Directors. We sponsored a public talk by Geshe Dakpa Topgyal, and began work finding our own teacher. Geshe Topgyal began discussions with a monk from his own Gelukpa monastery (Drepung Loseling) in India, hoping to arrange for that monk to come to Columbia. We also sponsored our first fundraising effort, a public dinner to celebrate Losar, the Tibetan New Year.
In 2002, we continued to meet at the the library of the Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship building for the teachings and worship. Geshe Dakpa Topgyal was able to arrange for a monk to come from Drepung Loseling monastery in India, and Geshe Nawang Phuntsok arrived that year. We introduced him to the community in Columbia with an event that was also a fundraiser, the Dinner with the Geshes. He was invited to participated in the first September 11 memorial at Trinity Cathedral in Columbia, offering Tibetan chants as a part of a multi-faith service. Geshe Phuntsok began offering Tibetan language classes, since most of our worship service is in that language. He also offered regular meditation and classes, and we continued to have regular visits from Geshe Dakpa Topgyal, and our members also attended retreats with the Charleston Tibetan Society for extended meditation practice and teachings on a specific topic. We held our annual membership meeting and regular Board meetings, and continued to raise funds through yard sales and donations. Our membership continued to grow. Geshe Phuntsok returned for a short stay at Drepung Loseling monastery in India. Our website (http://www.scdharma.org) was developed.
In Geshe Phuntsok returned to Columbia and continued to offer class on meditation, Buddhist theory, and Tibetan language. Since the membership had grown and we needed a residence for our teacher, we rented a house at 1320 Brennen Road in Columbia. We held another dinner to celebrate Losar, and we continued to have regular visits from Geshe Dakpa Topgyal. Our members again attended retreats with the Charleston Tibetan Society. We held our annual membership meeting and regular Board meetings, and continued to raise funds through yard sales and donations. Our membership continued to grow. Several members of the South Carolina Dharma group took refuge (the Buddhist ceremony similar to baptism in Christianity). We offered recorded versions of Geshe Topgyal’s teachings on the website.
Geshe Phuntsok continued to teach classes on meditation, Buddhist theory (Lam Rim), and Tibetan language, and also spent time in Charleston and in India, studying. Again we sponsored a Losar celebration and also held fundraising yard sales, as well as working with a local fireworks company to raise funds to pay rent, etc. We began an outreach to inmates in state correctional institutions, including Broad River CI in Columbia, SC, where a small group of inmates met weekly with one of our senior students. The Venerable Geshe Dakpa Topgyal came to offer advanced teachings on a regular basis, and we again attended retreats sponsored jointly with the Charleston Tibetan Society. Again we held the annual membership meeting and elected a new Board that met regularly.
Geshe Phuntsok’s visa had reached its limit and he returned to India, leaving us with no resident teacher. We continued to meet regularly for meditation led by members of the Board and other senior students, and to study mediation and Lam Rim with Geshe Dakpa Topgyal, who visited from Charleston. Four more members took refuge in fall of 2005. Again we sponsored a Losar celebration, attended retreats, and asked Geshe Topgyal to begin searching for a new resident teacher. We continued to visit Broad River CI as well as offering meditation instruction at Camille Graham CI, a women’s institution, and visiting an inmate at another state institution. We held the regular annual membership meeting and also monthly open Board meetings, and continue to raise funds through yard sales and donations.
In 2006, a possible teacher was located at Drepung Loseling monastery, Geshe Sherab Gyaltsen. He arrived in October and began studying English and offering meditation sessions and Tibetan language classes. We began to search for a larger and more appropriate location, and hope to move in early 2007. Also in 2006, we again offered the Losar celebration and had yard sales to raise funds. Geshe Topgyal visited from Charleston and we attended retreats with the Charleston Tibetan Society. We elected a new Board at the annual membership meeting and held monthly open Board meetings.
Introductory classes in meditation were offered, with so much interest that three different series were held. We again offered the Losar celebration and had yard sales to raise funds. Geshe Topgyal visited from Charleston and we attended retreats with the Charleston Tibetan Society. We elected a new Board at the annual membership meeting and held monthly open Board meetings. A new location, a small house on South Maple Street in Rosewood, was located, and the Dharma Center moved there in September. Geshe Sherab lived in the house and also visited Charleston, and attended English classes. We began taking a meal to the prison programs for Saga Dawa. The South Carolina Dharma Group received non-profit status from the Internal Revenue Service as a 501(c)3 organization on Aug. 7, 2007.
We again had yard sales to raise funds. Geshe Topgyal visited from Charleston and we attended retreats with the Charleston Tibetan Society. We elected a new Board at the annual membership meeting and held monthly open Board meetings. Geshe Sherab returned to India in July. Additional fund-raising was done by selling fireworks with John Casey, and the web site was revised. Sponsored by Amnesty International, Geshe Topgyal spoke at USC on the situation in Tibet. We began Wednesday night joint book discussions with members of other Buddhist organizations including Shambala and the Zen group. The prison program expanded to include the federal institution in Estill. The South Maple Street location was closed and we met for meditation in rooms at the Unitarian-Universalist fellowship. Geshe Topgyal began discussing a visit from another Geshe, Geshe Jampa, and an application for a visa for Geshe Jampa was submitted, but an additional document of Homeland Security clearance, form I-29, was required. We continued taking a meal to the prison programs for Saga Dawa.
SCDG began to rent a room in the building at 2222 Devine Street, near Five Points. The I29 and visa for Geshe Jampa were approved, and he arrived in the late fall. Members of SCDG met with the Radiant Mind Retreat Center group from CTS and worked on plans. SCDG held an informational meeting at Seibels House and invited members of the community. Losar was not held because of the events in Tibet, but a memorial for victims was held at the State House. A meditation class was offered again. We continued taking a meal to the prison programs for Saga Dawa.
Geshe Jampa taught classes through winter and spring, and joined his family in Canada in the summer after living with members during the year. We began a book discussion series on Thursday nights, starting with books by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. We also met with Geshe Topgyal and Robert Condy to discuss the future of SCDG and decided to try to locate short-term teachers. We began recording Geshe Topgyal’s teachings and posting them on YouTube. We continued taking a meal to the prison programs for Saga Dawa.
We continued to meet on Devine Street and moved into a larger room. Book discussions continued on Wednesday (joint) and Thursday (SCDG only). We expanded to the prisons in Allendale and Lieber, and also offered a yoga program at Camille Graham. Losar was held for the community, but we did the cooking, although GesheLa attended. A joint retreat with CTS was held again. We continued taking a meal to the prison programs in Columbia for Saga Dawa.
Geshe Thubstan Tsultim came to CTS in the spring, and began teaching at SCDG in the fall. We again had yard sales to raise cash, and continued the prison outreach. We learned that Geshe Phuntsok had become ill and sent donations to help him return to India, where he died. SCDG began raising money for a stupa as a memorial and for a scholarship fund in his memory. We began participation in the Interfaith Council. Losar was celebrated with members, friends, and Tibetan families from Columbia and Florence. We continued taking a meal to the prison programs in Columbia for Saga Dawa.
Geshe Tsultim lived with members and taught twice a week through the winter and spring. He visited the prisons and several inmates took refuge. He returned to India in the summer. Book discussions with SCDG continued to meet on Sundays, and a monthly Introduction to Buddhism and Meditation discussion was offered on Wednesday nights. The website was redesigned and moved, along with all email lists, to Google. We had a yard sale. We continued taking a meal to the prison programs in Columbia for Saga Dawa.
Ven. Thubten Chonyi, a nun from Sravasti Abbey came for a week’s at-home retreat, with an intensive New Year’s purification teachings. In Fall, 2014, Geshe Topgyal offered a weekend retreat for SCDG only in Charleston. We began streaming Geshe Topgyal's teachings at CTS weekly via internet. We left the space on Devine Street and meditated in members' homes. Visiting prisons at Broad River and Allendale continued, and we worked with CTS to begin visits at MacDougall.
We moved in to the space on Florence Street in Earlewood, behind the house at 3003 Columbia Ave, Columbia, SC 29201. Dr. Dieter Borrmann gave a talk on "Meditation and Neuroplasticity" at USC, jointly sponsored by SCDG. We revised the bylaws to include fewer board members and to clarify some processes.
We continued to meet on Florence Street, and also continued to have meditation, prison visits, and retreats. In the spring, Ahbay Rinpoche came to stay for several months. We rented an apartment for him and members took turns supporting him with driving, shopping, and recreation. He taught frequently and offered many pujas to the group, as well as individual sessions. He also gave a public talk, and visited Buddhist groups in other places. In the fall, we held book discussions after meditation. We were featured in a short article in Tricyle (a national magazine for Buddhists that is popular in both print and electronic versions).
We continued to meet on Florence Street, and also continued to have meditation, prison visits, and retreats. In the spring, Ahbay Rinpoche came to stay for six weeks, this time staying with members at their houses, and again was supported by other members. Once again he gave a public talk and visited groups in other cities, and he taught a retreat at Radiant Mind Retreat Center. We contributed to the work at Radiant Mind Retreat Center, especially Compassionate Heart Radiant Mind Meditation Center and attended retreats there.
We continued to meet on Florence Street, and also continued to have meditation, prison visits (but at only one prison now, because the men are unavailable at Broad River), and retreats. In the spring, Venerable Thubten Chonyi once again came to stay for ten days, offering a mini-retreat one weekend at the Dharma Center and a longer retreat the next weekend at Radiant Mind Retreat Center, as well as public talks, weeknight teaching, and individual sessions. The Dharma Center was renovated to be larger and more comfortable. Geshe Topgyal's streaming teachings began to use a new format on YouTube, so we hope to begin viewing as a group after meditation.
SCDG continued to meet for meditation on Florence Street, and continued outreach to prisons (Allendale and Turbeville) and to interfaith gatherings. Two retreats were held at Radiant Mind Retreat Center, one in spring and one in fall. We were unable to access the online teachings so have not yet begun to view teachings as a group, but are working to improve that. A committee reworked the website and many new responses began to appear and attendance at meditation increased.
When the pandemic appeared in March, SCDG began having online meditation via Zoom instead of meeting in the Dharma Center. Prisons were closed to volunteers and communication with chaplains ceased. In April, Geshe Topgyal began teaching via Zoom with teachings on meditation on Sundays and on Dharma topics on Wednesdays, so SCDG switched to discussion of books, sutras, and other things on Thursdays. We began to add attendees from outside Columbia, including some located in other countries. In June, Ven. Chonyi taught an online retreat via Zoom, and the board met that way also, including the annual members' meeting in September. We made substantial financial contributions to the local food pantry, Harvest Hope.
SCDG continued to meet for meditation and discussion via Zoom, and also held board meetings that way. We had a weekend-long online retreat with Ven. Chonyi, and several mini-retreats with Geshe Topgyal. We continued to increase our attendance. Members also participated in Geshe Topgyal's online teachings twice weekly. We continued to make contributions to the food pantry.