Born in Lhasa, Tibet in 1939, Gehlek Rimpoche was recognized as an incarnate lama at the age of four. Prior to fleeing Tibet during the Chinese invasion in 1959, he was one of the last lamas to be fully educated in the legendary Drepung Monastery, Tibet’s largest monastic institution. At the age of twenty-five, Gehlek Rimpoche gave up monastic life, and in the following years he worked for All India Radio and as an editor for the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Delhi. In the late 1970s, he was directed by his teachers, Kyabje Ling Rimpoche and Kyabje Trijang Rimpoche, to begin teaching Western students. He established a teaching center in the Netherlands in 1985 and, in 1987, founded the meditation center Jewel Heart in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It now has chapters across the U.S. and throughout the world. Gehlek Rimpoche was interviewed in April at his New York City apartment by Tricycle contributing editor Mark Magill.
We face loss of one kind or another all the time—the loss of possessions, of friendships, lovers, parents. We lose our good looks, our hair, reading vision, hearing, memory, and finally our bodies. What can we learn from this? We have two choices. Either we go crazy and try to turn the sky upside down, or we try to understand the situation. Samsara, our everyday existence, is suffering. And loss is very much a part of samsara. In my case, when I fled Tibet, I had the personal experience of losing my homeland, property, teachers, students, friends, and attendants overnight.
How did you respond to that loss? When you are simply running for your life, the question of loss doesn’t come up. But once you stop running, you begin to miss the things you need. You need food, but you don’t have food. You need shelter, but there is no shelter. You need a horse, but you don’t have a horse.
You finally stop to smell the coffee, but there’s no coffee. Not even a coffeepot. But in my personal case, the appreciation that I was alive made it easier. That and the understanding that this samsaric life is like a magician’s show. It is here now and gone tomorrow. Understanding that helps you to adapt to the situation. Otherwise, you can moan and grieve for a long, long time. You deprive yourself of an opportunity to celebrate this wonderful life and take advantage of what it can offer. It is your choice. The world we are living in is impermanent. It changes from better to worse and vice versa. One has to understand that. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t mourn. There’s nothing wrong with feeling loss. But when you decide to let it go, and move on, after a little while you might find you’re still thinking about it.
Meaning? You have to develop determination of mind. You have to apply your mental power, what you might call good old-fashioned willpower.
How is that developed? You have to reason with yourself: “I have much more important things to do with my life. I want to be of some benefit to myself and others. Am I going to act like a silly little goat and push myself down into depression? Or am I going to use my intelligence for some good?” You reason like this and you remind yourself that you have already decided to let it go. You allow yourself a certain time for mourning. When that time is over, let it be over. I was in Holland two years ago and I lost my bag. I happened to have ten thousand dollars in cash in that bag. This was much more than I had in all of my bank accounts put together. I also lost my credit cards and identification. This was on a Saturday. I couldn’t do anything or even leave the hotel until Monday. So I allowed myself to mourn the loss of my property, because I had nothing else to do at that time. By Monday morning I decided that it was time to stop. I dedicated the loss of the money to the benefit of all beings and particularly to those who took it. Even so, every twenty minutes I would think, “Oh my God, I lost a lot. How embarrassing if other people know.” When that happened, I told myself that I had already dedicated it. It was no longer mine. It was gone. So what was I crying for?
You say that appreciation of your life helped you accept change when you were forced to leave your country. Is appreciation in some way an antidote to loss? Appreciation may not be an antidote, but it helps to cope. I’ve noticed that when you buy something, whether for yourself or others, you only buy the best quality. That is a habit from childhood. My family was quite well off. They wouldn’t own anything shoddy. Even now I don’t buy junk. Wherever my eyes land, it always happens to be on the most expensive things. I would rather have old shoes than buy junk shoes. This is habit. Which shows that habits are more difficult to get rid of than the effects of grief or desire. I lost everything when I left Tibet, but my habits came with me.
Your habit leads you to objects of the finest quality. But you are not going to have them forever. Is this a problem? No, it is not a problem. When it is lost, it is lost.
Is there any benefit to having things of great quality around? Is there anything that comes from the appreciation of quality itself? My view is, your ability to appreciate acts as a kind of measure. You can’t appreciate something if you are afraid of losing it. You are absolutely correct. If you appreciate something, then you will enjoy it. If you cannot enjoy it, it becomes more burden than pleasure. The fear of loss takes over. So you live in constant threat. It is the same way with power. Even the president of the United States becomes a prisoner. He cannot talk to just anyone. He has to be guarded and protected around the clock. This is samsara. Joy and pleasure are changed into a nightmare. Even rock stars or movie stars are only a little better off than the president. They have to hide behind bodyguards in fear of what might happen. Average people like us should really appreciate our lives because of the freedom we enjoy. It is the same with possessions. We lose our appreciation of them when we become controlled by the fear of loss. The problem is not with the objects; it is with our attitude. As long as we can appreciate and enjoy them, fine.
I was giving a talk in Hong Kong once. Afterward, a fellow asked me, “Do I have to give up my Rolls Royce?” I told him that as long as he drove the Rolls Royce he was okay. But when the Rolls Royce started driving him, he’d be in trouble.
We desire power, prestige, position, wealth, status. But when we have them, we do not enjoy them; we are driven by them instead. We have to understand that whatever we have will be lost. The end of the wealth is poverty. The end of fame is obscurity. The end of life is death. That is the nature of samsara.
This appreciation of friends or things of quality automatically leads to enjoyment, doesn’t it? There is nothing wrong with enjoyment.
As long as you are gripping it, you are fearful. When you cease holding on to it, you can appreciate and enjoy it. Yes. If you are a miser, loss will make you even more miserable. Again, appreciation will help you not to be miserable about loss.
How can we apply this to our relationships with people? Stop fighting with your family members, spouse, or friends. Start appreciating. Enjoy each other. Stop looking at the other’s faults. Start to appreciate each other’s qualities. Life is short. Even if you live one hundred years, how long will you live with all your faculties intact? The period we have to appreciate each other is quite limited. When the person goes, you can appreciate the quality of life that you had together, instead of regretting that you wasted time, that you could have done better. That will give you comfort. It will help you to overcome loss and sadness.
So let’s say we have been able to live in that way. Even then, when someone near and dear leaves, we feel sadness. How do we deal with that? For example, you were friends with Allen Ginsberg. How did his death affect you? Allen was a wonderful person – kind, caring, open, and straightforward. He had no hidden agenda whatsoever. Not selfish at all. So I appreciate that. At the time he left, I was sad. It was a big loss, no doubt about it. But I appreciated that he had had a good life and was on a spiritual path. He was able to prepare himself for death. I can say from personal experience that he celebrated his dying instead of mourning it.
But still, you miss him. Yes, I definitely miss him. But missing him doesn’t torment me, because I know he had a good death, that he is okay. You know that change has to take place. It is a natural process. You remember the person and you wish they were here. That doesn’t go away. But if you understand it correctly, as part of a natural process, it will not traumatize you.
From my Tibetan standpoint, it is very important to do whatever we can to help that person in their journey. In the case of Allen, we did the pujas [ritual ceremonies]. If you’ve done what you can to make sure the person is okay, then you should rejoice. That is what brings closure.
Let’s talk about letting go and moving on. For those of us who believe in reincarnation, we can make it difficult for the departing soul if we cannot let the person go. Until they take another rebirth, the consciousness of the individual person is formless. They continue to circle around. When they see you crying, they try to tell you that they are still here to get you to stop crying. But you won’t be able to see them, and it upsets them. It can even cause their death in the bardo [intermediate phase between death and rebirth]. So not letting them go not only makes difficulties for yourself, but also causes trouble for the departed soul. With any loss, once something is gone, it is important to let it go. If you lose your eyesight, crying will not bring your vision back. It will only prevent you from adapting to your new situation. The other senses will compensate if you let them. We can teach the blind how to read and how to walk and communicate. This is the way to celebrate life.
So taking positive action helps us to let go. Oh, definitely.
What else helps letting go? Understanding that everything is impermanent. This is the nature of reality. It is nothing but samsara. In the West, you have the expression that you wouldn’t wish something on your worst enemy. From a spiritual standpoint, we can adopt a similar point of view. If you experience loss, you can pray that your loss may substitute for the loss of others, so that even your worst enemy may not have to suffer. This is a good way of letting go.
Grasping is all in the mind. Changing your mental attitude will make a difference. Our feelings, suffering, and joy are the perception of our minds. So we have to exert control over the mind. That is why I said earlier that we need to develop our minds through understanding. Understanding comes from patiently reasoning with yourself. You cannot force your mind or order it about, but how we view the nature of loss can make a big difference. There are many kinds of loss. We lose whole societies and cultures. This creates tremendous suffering, no doubt. We lost Tibet, and many people suffered. Much of our heritage was lost. Buddhism itself has been forced from country to country over the centuries, and yet it has popped back up each time, maybe better than before.
What about the question of this being a degenerate age? Loss has positive and negative consequences. In the general sense, yes, this may be a degenerate age. But from an individual standpoint, we are living in a most fortunate period where every kind of spiritual path is available right in the Yellow Pages. When you begin to look at loss and change in this way, the question arises about whether to mourn or welcome it.
So the letting go means persuading the mind through understanding. What is moving on? It is continuing the purpose of your life. Continuing your spiritual journey. Continuing your career. Continuing your livelihood.
We experience a loss. We mourn it. We let it go. We move on. What can we learn from this? When my own teacher Kyabje Trijang Rimpoche died, it was a big shock for me. Maybe the biggest. He was like a father. I would see him nearly every day. No matter what I asked him, he would advise me, whether my question was political, economic, spiritual, or cultural. He was a source of comfort and guidance and learning. A source of trust and light. So when I saw his dead body and knew it could no longer answer, I experienced a big shock. Here was someone I had relied on. Someone I thought was absolutely dependable. Now such a solid, reliable base was gone. Not only gone, but cremated. I understood that even such a thoroughly dependable person was impermanent.
How do you apply this? You can rely on a teacher for guidance, but that teacher will go. Ultimately the job has to be done by yourself. You cannot rely on anyone or anything but yourself. From a Buddhist perspective, you die, you continue, you still rely on yourself.
You can see how one reaction to that might be to say, “Well, it’s all going to go, so I won’t get close to anything . . . ” That is not right. That is like saying, “I am going to die anyway, so I might as well die today.” That is a waste of human life.
How do you avoid that pitfall? It may be that this is all like a magician’s show, but this is our life. We have to function with the understanding that this is illusion, but within the illusion you have to act not only as a responsible person but also as a role model for others. That is the duty of spiritual practice. If you cut yourself off from life, not only are you wasting a precious opportunity, but you are also doing a tremendous disservice to others.
So moving on means staying involved. Staying involved, with the knowledge that this is impermanent. With the knowledge that this is illusion. With the knowledge that this is samsara. That helps us to understand the nature of reality and the nature of loss. That understanding helps us know how to mourn. It helps us know how to let go and how to move on. That is how we can really learn how to appreciate this precious and wonderful life.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.