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Geshe Jampa Gyatso
FPMT is blessed with a treasure trove of Geshes who serve around the world at the invitation of Spiritual Director Lama Zopa Rinpoche. Manda/a has chosen to profile two Geshes from the FPMT ranks at different ends of a remarkable continuum: Geshe lampa Gyatso, a dear friend of FPMT founder Lama Yeshe, who is still going strong at age 75 at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa in Pomaia, Italy; and the young Geshe Thubten Sherab, seven years post degree, who serves as the headmaster of Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal.
A master whose name means “Ocean of Love” – Geshe Jampa Gyatso
Geshe Jampa Gyatso was born in north-central Tibet in early 1932, the first of seven children of a nomadic family. He was ordained as a boy, but remained with his family. It was not until the age of thirteen that he left home to study at Sera Je Monastery. At Sera, Geshe-la made the fortuitous acquaintance of a young monk named Lama Thubten Yeshe. They would become close, life-long friends. In particular, they were both avid debaters, forming debating groups from amongst their friends in order to practice as much as possible. Sometimes, Geshe-la would sneak away to Lama Yeshe’s room where the two future masters would read about the great yogis and saints of the past.
This period of his life took a dramatic turn when the Chinese army invaded Tibet in 1959. He soon found himself running for his life over the Himalayas, along with Lama Yeshe and thirty-five others. In 1992, Geshe-la recollected the journey that changed his life …
A Master from the New Generation – Geshe Thubten Sherab
I was born in 1967 in a very small village of about two hundred people in the province of Manang, which is in the western part of Nepal. Because my parents had five sons, they wanted at least one or two of them to join the monastery; it is an honor and a way of accumulating merit for the family. My parents had a disagreement about who should join the monastery, me or my younger brother, and finally they decided on my younger brother. They brought him to Kopan Monastery, but Lama Yeshe rejected him, saying that he was too young, although Lama had accepted others of the same age. I guess he didn’t have the karma in this life to be a monk. Then my parents brought me to Lama Yeshe and Lama accepted. So I had the karma.
At that time I wasn’t against becoming a monk, but at the same time it wasn’t my own decision. It was more or less like going to school. When I was around 18, as any normal teenager I struggled a lot, not knowing whether it was best for me to continue or to disrobe. But then, just before I went to Sera, I made the strong decision that being a monk continuously was how I was going to spend my life. Maybe that was when I became fully-ordained in my own mind. It was at that time that I was walking with one of my teachers, the late Geshe Jampa, from Kathmandu to Kopan. He mentioned that the Manang people are all extremely devoted, but they seem to lack an understanding of the Dharma. He told me that it would be good if I could help them understand more, so this had the biggest impact on me and made me want to go to Sera and study in depth. …
From Geshe Jampa Gyatso, resident teacher at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa, Italy, August 1987.
I was here six years before, then went to the West, so we are meeting again after six years. I met Lama Zopa Rinpoche in Lhasa and Rinpoche said it would be very helpful if I gave some advice to the boys in Kopan. I don’t really have any advice and I already sent cassettes from Italy, sometimes advising you and sometimes scolding. I was far from here and thought it would be helpful to send a cassette from a far place.
Guru devotion is very important – it is the root practice of Buddhism. If we were together and I said guru devotion is very important, you might think I’m saying you have to serve me and such things like this – then it becomes very awkward. Therefore, I sent one tape from far away.
Guru devotion is very beneficial for this life and future lives. If we don’t have proper devotion to the guru and if we have anger to the guru and make problems for the guru’s body, speech or mind, then later it will happen to us – that is the nature of dependent arising. Therefore, correct guru devotion is very important.
When studying the scriptures, their meaning and one’s mind have to become one. That mind has to become the antidote to our afflictions. If you have great desire, what is the antidote? You have to meditate on the explanations given in the texts. If you have great anger, what is the antidote to that? It is said in Madhyamaka that the antidote is patience, therefore you have to meditate on patience. How can we meditate on patience? It is already explained in so many texts how to meditate on patience and by doing that one can abandon laziness and anger. Likewise we have much difficulty with ignorance. What is the antidote to ignorance? It is emptiness and dependent arising and these are explained in the great scriptures. There is no method to tame the afflictions other than that which is contained in the five great scriptures. If we keep to one side the scriptures we have been studying and practicing and we search in another scripture for some meditation, this is a completely mistaken approach. That is like we have an ocean of water in front of us and we search for more water in the imprint of a cow’s hoof.
It is very important to keep the teacher’s advice in the heart, and after hearing what they teach, we should practice contemplating and meditating. If we don’t do this it becomes difficult to meditate later. Following the instructions of the teacher, one should study according to one’s ability. If you cannot follow your teachers’ advice, you should say that you cannot. It’s alright to say like this as they are your gurus. You can say, “It’s very difficult for me to do this,” but you shouldn’t go against their advice. If their advice is not suitable for you, maybe you are tempted to not tell them directly but then you speak about them behind their backs. This way one will create negative karma and the result will be conflicts, and conflicts we don’t like.
Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche established this monastery for the future benefit of Westerners, to teach Dharma without depending on translators. So they incorporated different subjects, including English. If you don’t know Dharma, merely knowing the language doesn’t help. Also, if we know Dharma but not the language, it’s difficult. Like me, I know Dharma but not the language, so I have to depend on a translator. If the translator translates well the students may think today
Geshe-la gave very good teachings. If he doesn’t translate well they might think today Geshe-la didn’t give very good teachings.
So I went to the West. The Westerners’ view and thought is that it is very easy to reach buddhahood. They think after five or six days practicing and meditating they may get some kind of realization and achieve buddhahood. Most of them have this kind of expectation to get enlightened in one life. They are thinking that through practicing and meditating they will gain realization, so when they don’t get this result they get tired and think, “What kind of practice is this?” and then there’s the danger of giving up Dharma. They think Tibetan buddhahood is available instantaneously. We Easterners don’t have this kind of thought. According to the sutra system, Buddha showed the twelve deeds thereby accumulating merit over countless great eons. In this way he attained buddhahood. So it is not that easy to attain buddhahood.
But one aspect of the Westerners’ approach is very good: if they hear some teaching, they immediately meditate and practice. That is very good, and this is something we are not doing. Even if we receive many teachings and initiations we don’t remember to recite the mantra or do retreat. We just talk about senseless things. If we have some commitment to recite sadhanas or Six Session Yoga, we recite very quickly, blah, blah, blah – it becomes like a tax, something that has to be done. If Westerners have commitment to recite a sadhana, they meditate. They say things like, “It is very difficult to meditate on Yamantaka because he has many heads and legs and hands and weapons.” They say even though it is very difficult; without visualizing they are not satisfied.
Young people who go to the West find it very difficult to comprehend Westerners’ knowledge but very easy to comprehend their faults. Westerners have great attachment and jealousy, and these are very easy to develop oneself; the younger monks who go to translate [are in] danger of losing their vows.
In the West I have many problems. Not with food, clothing or shelter, but my problem is that every day Westerners come with their problems, at least five or six every day. “I’m sick, I have cancer, what can I do? I wish to have a beautiful husband, what should I do? I wish to have a beautiful wife, what can I do?” They really come like this to say, “Please make an observation.” Sometimes they bring pictures to check with me, “Will I get this lady or not?” There are many of these kinds of problems. Then they get married and then fight, and she wants to keep the children, he wants to keep the children. Then they become a separated couple, and then they go to court about the child and the wealth. Many of these problems they have in the West.
Also, many young people there inject drugs. They have many problems and suffering, so in order to dispel them, they take injections. They have to pay much money for one injection, so sometimes they steal, or even kill people. Some steal everything from their parents’ home. Then they take the injection, and they become very dark and skinny, and some even die, and their parents suffer so much. Some parents bring their children with these problems to the center. Then there is danger for the center as the government thinks it is supplying drugs. But if we say we can’t keep your child here, the parents say, “What kind of people are you? You say your center is helping other people, why aren’t you helping my child?” These are the conflicts of Westerners.
Some Westerners ask me, “You said you became a monk at seven years. Did you become a monk by your wish or your parents’ wish?” I say I had a desire to become a monk, my parents couldn’t force me. To become a monk is very good – simple life, no problem with food or clothing. In our center we have made three parts: one side is for monks, one for nuns and one for lay people. From this year the monks are cooking their own food. They, of course, have good food; they become very healthy. In any case, the monk’s life is easier than lay people’s lives.
It is difficult to find sponsors for Western monks and nuns, but quite easy for Tibetan Sangha. If you take pictures of Tibetan monks to show Westerners they will agree to give a small amount of money each month, which is enough to live on here. But Western Sangha live in the West and you can spend that much on one lunch there! People say they’d don’t earn so much money themselves so how can they sponsor? Therefore, it is very difficult to get sponsors for Western Sangha.
Now, depending on friends like renunciation, bodhichitta and the wisdom realizing emptiness, we have to subdue the enemies of attachment, anger and ignorance. One should realize that to eradicate the three poisons it is important to have hearing, contemplation and meditation. That way one will gain happiness.
In summary, we are the followers of sacred beings, therefore we should practice as those higher beings practiced, and our task is to become like those beings. Monks and nuns, particularly, should have less desire and more contentment. Without this, no matter how much wealth we have, we will experience more mental suffering. We will not be happy; we’ll wish to have more and more wealth. For example, no matter how much one drinks salt water it only increases one’s thirst. Therefore, it’s very important to have less desire and more contentment. Then you should practice the advice of your teachers. It’s very important to engage in one’s practice, to keep pure morality and to follow the discipline of the monastery.
We say in Tibet that the white cloth which has no stains can be dyed any color. So now you are like that white cloth. You are very young. You can choose whichever color you wish. You have the choice because you have a good base. That’s all I have to say. Thank you very much.
By Ven. Joan Nicell
Geshe-la, as he was affectionately known to all, arrived at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa, Pomaia (Italy), on November 30, 1980, and unexpectedly left us almost exactly twenty-seven years later on November 27, 2007. While the facts about what Geshe-la taught and did in those twenty-seven years are easy to recount, it is not so easy to describe what he did for so many people during that time. However, to begin with, it is probably not an exaggeration to say that he, in all likelihood, gave more hours of teaching in the West than any other Tibetan lama.
In 1983, at the request of Lama Yeshe, he set up a seven-year teacher training program in Sutra and Tantra as well as a twelve-year Geshe Studies Program that, between them, were to include not only commentaries on three of the five great texts studied in Tibetan monastic universities, but also commentaries on the four classes of tantra and the Guhyasamaja Tantra, as well as on six of the supplementary subjects.
When I first came to the Institute in 1990, Geshe-la had completed his commentary on the Ornament for Clear Realization and was teaching the last chapter of the second of the great treatises, Chandrakirti’s Supplement to the Middle Way, to an extremely small group of disciples. In fact often the staff – Geshe-la, George Churinoff (the textual translator), plus the Tibetan-English and English-Italian interpreters – outnumbered the students in the gompa. Upon asking about this sad situation, I was told that it had not always been like this, and that in 1983, there had been many students who had engaged with great enthusiasm in the study of the Ornament for Clear Realization. But the years passed and, with many interruptions to the program for a variety of reasons including a lack of translators, the number of students slowly dwindled as they experienced difficulties in supporting themselves economically, and either left the Institute or began to work full-time in various positions in the Institute. In spite of this, Geshe-la himself never seemed to become discouraged and continued on to finish commenting on the Supplement to the Middle Way in 1991, as well as the Treasury of Manifest Knowledge in 1997. He once told me that he had been determined to finish teaching these three great treatises because he had promised Lama Yeshe that he would do so.
In the meantime Geshe-la also taught regular weekend courses, not only at the Institute but at many other centers all over Italy, as well as occasionally in Spain and England. On average he would teach three out of four weekends a month, in addition to the regular teachings on Buddhist philosophy from Monday to Friday. Often he would leave on Friday afternoon and return either late Sunday or Monday morning, yet still he would be in the gompa on Monday evening, teaching us the intricacies of Buddhist philosophy with great patience and thoroughness. When his translator came down with tuberculosis in 1992, Geshe-la began to teach both weekend courses and the Treasury of Manifest Knowledge in what he himself always called his “broken English.” For those of us who had deciphered his “broken English,” it was a joy to directly receive the unmistaken Dharma from such a great master.
In 1996, Thubten Pende, the recently appointed director of the new FPMT Education Department, suggested that a revised edition of the Geshe Studies Program be taught by Geshe Jampa Gyatso at the Institute. The following year was spent in organizing and advertising the newly created seven-year Masters Program, complete with the study of the three great treatises as well as one year devoted to an overview of tantra in general and another to the in-depth study of the Guhyasamaja Tantra. In January 1998 Geshe-la began to teach the Ornament to the thirty-five students who had come from all over the world to study Buddhist philosophy (in the small Italian village of Pomaia) with a living master who had earned a reputation for his scholarly knowledge as well as his down-to-earth practical approach to Dharma in daily life.
In the fall of 2001, half way through the Masters Program, Geshe-la was diagnosed with lung cancer [see “The Death of Geshe Jampa Gyatso” page XX]. Geshe-la continued to teach the Masters Program, lessening only his schedule of weekend teachings outside the Institute.
Although the Masters Program must have been easier than the early years of the Geshe Studies Program, it was still a pioneer program and fraught with many difficulties for the students and staff alike. However, in spite of this, twenty students completed the entire seven-year program while another thirty completed one or more subjects. The Masters Program was followed by a two-and-a-half year Basic Program, offered both as a full-time residential program as well as a correspondence course. Geshe-la shared the teaching of the nine core subjects with the Institute’s second resident lama, Geshe Tenzin Tenphel, who taught the philosophical subjects, while Geshe-la himself taught the more practice-oriented texts. This time, sixteen people completed the entire residential program while another twenty-nine completed one or more subjects, nineteen completed all nine subjects by correspondence, and another forty-six completed one or more subjects by correspondence. Requested by both His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Geshe-la had accepted to teach another Masters Program beginning in January 2008. Eighty students have been accepted into the program.
Geshe-la was the motivating force behind many Dharma activities. He was directly and indirectly involved in the founding of many Dharma centers in Italy, as well as a monastery and nunnery at the Institute, and more recently the acquisition of twenty acres of land near the Institute for the future construction of a joint monastery and nunnery. In 1986 he was appointed abbot by Lama Zopa Rinpoche of the newly founded Takden Shedrup Dhargye Ling Monastery, and in 1990 was appointed abbot of the newly founded Shenphen Samten Ling Nunnery. In 1994 he was asked by Lama Zopa Rinpoche to be the abbot of Nalanda Monastery in France, where he was invited to teach annually. In addition, he benefited his many disciples in India by paying regular visits over the years to his house in Sera Je Monastery where he was asked by the Tibetan monks to teach various subjects.
In addition to his 480-page thesis on the three exalted knowers, over the years Geshe-la also composed several texts in Tibetan, and a commentary by him on the practice of Prostrations to the Thirty-Five Buddhas, called Everlasting Rain of Nectar, has been published in both English and Italian. Also a commentary on “Minds and Mental Factors” and a collection of short teachings have been published in Italian. Numerous transcripts of his teachings (including his Masters Program and Basic Program teachings) are available as unpublished manuscripts in both English and Italian. The list of teachings given at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa alone number 380 courses – and that does not include the numerous empowerments that he gave, nor the annual tantric retreats that he led.
Geshe-la was involved in all four visits of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to the Institute, as well as the visits of many other important lamas. He oversaw the building of three stupas at the Institute, the filling of a prayer wheel containing 21 billion mantras, and the transformation of an old and ruined chapel into a beautiful temple dedicated to Chenrezig. He regularly filled and consecrated the many statues brought to him by his disciples. He was involved in everything to do with the Dharma at the Institute, from choosing the color of paint for the interior of altar, to the redecorating of the protector gompa, to the construction of a celestial mansion for empowerments, to the organizing of elaborate rituals (the blessing of wealth vases, long life pujas, the annual Losar puja, the conferral of empowerments both by him and other lamas, fire pujas…).
In addition, Geshe-la was involved in every major, and many minor, administrative decisions at the Institute and in other Dharma centers (from what to do with mentally-ill guests and volunteers up to the construction of new buildings to provide accommodation for an ever-growing number of students). He attended public conferences, inter-religious dialogues, political encounters, and did whatever he could to support Tibet in its struggle for autonomy. He accepted interviews with reporters and occasionally appeared on television. In spite of his dislike for long meals, he always accepted our invitations to his birthday celebrations, Losar lunches, and Christmas dinners. He learned and respected our Western customs and traditions.
He gave advice and did divinations regarding anything and everything, from which doctors and treatments were the best for a particular illness, to how to find (or keep!) a partner, what to do with troublesome children, a sick parent, a difficult employer, competition from colleagues, whether it was the right moment to change jobs, to buy a new house, to set up one’s own business, to take ordination, to have a child… His door was always open to everyone. To everyone he would say “I will pray,” but he also actually helped people find a partner, a job, an apartment to rent, a house to buy… He made peace between partners, as well as between parents and children, even telephoning one of the parties involved to talk to them personally.
Geshe-la taught us not to misuse our own or others’ belongings, to not waste or throw out what could still be used, to not go running after the latest gadget, whether a cell phone or a car. He showed us how to laugh at ourselves, our silly habits, our shortcomings, our weaknesses. He taught us to accept ourselves for what we are, while striving to become the buddha that is everyone’s potential. He taught us with endless patience, repeating time and again how to develop equanimity, love, compassion, patience, concentration, and wisdom. He told us his favorite stories over and over again, checking our memory by always adding a slight variation from the time before. He delighted us with his acting out of the sufferings of aging (often pointing out the fact that we would have a heart attack if we were suddenly to wake up old with a wrinkled face, gray hair, no teeth, loose skin), as well as the torment of attachment and the way we say “I love you,” while meaning “I am attached to you.” He shocked us with his outspoken opinions about politics and politicians (both Western and Tibetan). He surprised us with his lack of etiquette, tranquilly cleaning the wax out of his ears, taking out his false teeth to clean them, or scratching his legs or back while we talked to him. He charmed us with his imitations of people, his knowledge of our world, his insight into our lives and problems. He forced us to work on ourselves, on our minds, on our mistaken way of viewing ourselves and our world. He made us be truthful and honest with him and with ourselves. In short, he never put up with any of our usual garbage.
Geshe-la always found a way to communicate with people, whether they were Buddhists or not. He could talk with great expertise on politics, especially Italian politics (he watched the news everyday when he was not in retreat), as well as on world events and sports (especially his favorite Italian sport, soccer). He was curious about everything and everyone, he missed nothing. Often he would interrogate us on some subject, only for us to then find out that he knew far more about the subject than the person he was questioning! He was known for his computer-like memory, not only of the names of the many people he met, but also where they were from and where they lived, what kind of job they had, how many children they had, what their difficulties and problems were…
Geshe-la, on the outside, was always a simple and humble human being. He never showed off his knowledge, and was the first to say that he did not know something or had forgotten something. He had no recipes in his dealings with people: He could be whatever they wanted him to be – a kind parent, a shoulder to cry on, a friend to share problems with, a priest to confess to, a therapist and counselor, a learned scholar, a tantric yogi. In fact he was all these and much more. He left an imprint on everyone who met him, with his joy, his huge smile, and his contagious laughter. He had a forthright way of telling us how things are without any of the usual political correctness. He could be wrathful and tough. He could be as soft and loving as a mother with a newborn child. He was at his ease with everyone and in every situation.
The Institute is a lonely place without Geshe-la, it is as if the very heart of this place has come to a stop. However, all of us here are determined to carry on the many projects he initiated, of which the upcoming Masters Program and the construction of the new monastery are the priorities. May he swiftly return to teach and guide us once again. …
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