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Born in 1939 in Lhasa, Tibet, Gelek Rinpoche studied at Drepung Monastery and was tutored by some of Tibet’s most renowned masters. Rinpoche received the Lharampa Geshe degree at the exceptionally young age of 20. He was a good friend of the late Lama Thubten Yeshe.
In the late 1970s Gelek Rinpoche was directed by both the Senior and Junior Tutors to His Holiness the Dalai Lama to teach Western students at the FPMT centers in India. Since then he has instructed Buddhist practitioners throughout the world and has established Jewel Heart centers in several countries. He is based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. Mandala spoke to Rinpoche in February.
Can you tell us something about your background? For example, who are you the incarnation of?
I have been recognized as the incarnation of one of the Gyuto Tantric College abbots called Tashi Namgyal. I believe I was recognized by the late Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo – the famous Pabongka. I studied at Drepung Monastery from the age of 4 until I was 20. I completed my geshe studies in that time. I’m from the Gelugpa tradition and am a student of Kyabje Trijang and Ling Rinpoche, as well as a little bit of Song Rinpoche, too.
Why did you decide to give up the lifestyle of a monk?
My attachment, probably! Yes, it’s the normal, usual attachment, which is always looking for some kind of kick, or pleasure, or something in anything else other than celibate life.
It is not at all a great thing that I did, [to disrobe]. It was a horrible thing, and it isn’t good – it’s almost like a President Clinton thing! However, many other Rinpoches, including Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche and Kyabje Ling Rinpoche, told me, “Even though you didn’t remain as a monk, it doesn’t mean you’ve resigned as a rinpoche.” They told me I still have to carry the banner of Buddhism. So that’s how it is.
How are you doing this?
I’ve been teaching Tibetan Buddhism for quite a long time in India. Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche told Lama Yeshe, and then Lama Yeshe sent Dr. Nick Ribush to me to request me to give teachings at Tushita in New Delhi in the late’70s. I did maybe two years of teaching then, which was the beginning of Tushita.
I also taught for a two-week course at Tushita in Dharamsala. At that time Kyabje Ling Rinpoche would dictate to me every night. He would check what I did every day, and would criticize me, telling me what was right and wrong. Finally he also asked me to give Yamantaka initiation. He gave me his own vase, materials, book and everything. So I also gave this initiation in Tushita in Dharamsala. That was many years ago when Kyabje Ling Rinpoche was still alive. Kyabje Trijang had already passed away.
What do you do with Jewel Heart?
With Jewel Heart I go around and teach in the Jewel Heart groups. We have two groups in Michigan (one in Ann Arbor, near the University of Michigan, and another in a suburb of Detroit), a Jewel Heart group in New York (where I’m teaching thought transformation these days), and groups in Chicago, Cleveland, Nebraska and very small, steady Jewel Heart groups in San Francisco and Los Angeles. I go to the more established groups at least once a month. I go every other week to New York, where there are close to 120-130 people.
What’s your connection with Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche?
Lama Yeshe was a very good friend and colleague of mine, from back in Tibet. In Tibet, we used to get together in the wintertime, in a little place called Jamyang. Jamyang was a little village west of Lhasa. We would all meet there for a sort of winter retreat for a month, to study specifically Buddhist logic.
Lama Yeshe was always very wonderful and nice. I belonged to Drepung Loseling, and Lama Yeshe belonged to Sera Je, and these are sort of two elite colleges among the three great monasteries. We would all challenge each other all the time – the two elite groups against each other! In our class, Lama Yeshe was on one side and I was on the other, and we would debate very often – almost every evening during that one-month retreat period. So we were very old friends there.
Then, after he had established a number of centers, when he found me in Delhi doing nothing, he told me, “What a waste! Why don’t you go and teach?” I said to him, “No, I’m not the type of person who should teach Buddhism – I’m just a wild and crazy guy.”
I think he talked to Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche and finally I got an order from Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche to teach in Tushita. This was when he sent Dr. Nick to ask me. So it was Lama Yeshe and Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche who really cooked up the heavy burden that I have today!
The teaching I did at Tushita in Dharamsala was Kyabje Ling Rinpoche’s order. First Tushita asked Ling Rinpoche to give that Lama Tsongkhapa’s Three Principles of the Path teaching and Yamantaka initiation, and Kyabje Rinpoche told Dr. Nick to ask me, again in Delhi.
When he came back to Delhi I would meet Lama Yeshe very often. He used to give me a lunch in at least one of those five-star hotels in Delhi, which was a great treat. Lastly, when he was sick and staying with Mommy Max, I saw him a couple of times. Finally, when he was leaving Delhi for California, in early 1984, he wrote a note from the airport, with a hundred dollars in the note and saying a prayer for me. It said something about, “Well, you have to do according to your own karma. There’s no way you can do whatever you want to do,” or something like that. I think he dictated the letter and Lama Zopa wrote it down and sent it to me. That was my last contact with Lama Yeshe.
As far as Lama Zopa is concerned, when Lama Zopa first came to India, not from Nepal but from Tibet in ’59 or ’60, a group of elder monks brought Lama Zopa to me to study Buddhist logic – he was 13 or 14 then. I might have had one or two classes – at most three or four classes – which he attended. Lama Zopa belongs to Sera Je and I was from Loseling, so even at that time among the monasteries, there was some reason why I shouldn’t continue to teach Lama Zopa and should send him to a Sera Je teacher. I sent him to Geshe Rabten, and Geshe Rabten sent him to Lama Yeshe. That was in Buxa, India, when we had all settled there at a temporary camp after escaping from Tibet. At that time there were no books, and classes had to be taught from memory only. So in any case I was instrumental in sending Lama Zopa to Geshe Rabten, and Lama Yeshe after that!
I want to say I am always getting a complementary copy of Mandala from you. I really enjoy reading it. I do hope you will become a great magazine. I have no doubt it will be, if not better, at least of equal standard with Tricycle or Shambala Sun. I also urge people to read it, and to be aware of the Buddhist activities. I have no doubt it is and will be a great contribution.
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