Develop the following ideas with respect to your teachers. I have wandered for a long time through cyclic existence, and they search for me; I have been asleep, having been obscured by delusion for a long time, and they wake me; they pull me out of the depths of the ocean of existence; I have entered a bad path, and they reveal the good path to me; they release me from being bound in the prison of existence; I have been worn out by illness for a long time, and they are my doctors; they are the rain clouds that put out my blazing fire of attachment.
–The Ten Teaching Sutra, quoted in Tsongkhapa’s The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment
It is said that infinite buddhas have guided countless sentient beings for immeasurable aeons, but we were not among them. The reliable teacher provides the complete and unmistaken path to us now. In that regard, the teacher is kinder than the buddhas.
As one of the last lamas to be fully educated in Tibet before the invasion of 1959, Gelek Rimpoche (1939–2017) demonstrated that kindness throughout his life by transmitting the dharma in word and example.
A nephew of the 13th Dalai Lama, Gelek Rimpoche began his studies at the age of 5 in Drepung, Tibet’s largest monastery, with more than 13,000 monks at that time. There he was taught by many of Tibet’s greatest masters, including the 14th Dalai Lama’s senior and junior tutors, Kyabje Ling Rinpoche and Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche, ultimately receiving the institution’s highest degree of Geshe Lharampa. An exceptional student, Rimpoche was known for his extraordinary memory, fierce debating skills, and piercing intellect.
During the Communist Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, Rimpoche fled on foot to India, where he was reunited with his principal teachers. At the age of 25, he gave up monastic life. Subsequently, he worked in Delhi as an editor for the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, editing and printing more than 170 volumes of rare Tibetan manuscripts that would have otherwise been lost. He also served as director of Tibet House and as a radio host at All India Radio. During his tenure as radio host, he conducted more than a thousand interviews for an oral history of the fall of Tibet to the Communist Chinese.
Thupten Jinpa Langri, scholar and principal translator for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, wrote, “With [Gelek Rimpoche] we have lost an important link to the great lineages of Tibet’s great masters, especially of the Geluk school. Known more famously to the Tibetans as Nyakre Khentrul Rinpoche, he had been instrumental in reprinting many of the Geluk texts. His emergence as one of the great Tibetan teachers in the West has also been a source of inspiration for many.”
In the late 1970s, Gelek Rimpoche was directed by Ling Rinpoche and Trijang Rinpoche to teach Western students, at first in Delhi. In 1985 he established a teaching center in the Netherlands, and in 1987 he founded Jewel Heart in Ann Arbor, Michigan. To further demonstrate his commitment to bringing Tibetan Buddhist teachings to the wider world, Rimpoche applied for and received U.S. citizenship.
From his base in Ann Arbor, Rimpoche went on to establish Jewel Heart centers in New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Lincoln, and overseas in Malaysia and Singapore. In addition to being a dharma community, Jewel Heart provides community outreach programs, events, and workshops, as well as charitable support to various projects. It provides financial assistance to young Tibetan lamas at monasteries-in-exile in India and to orphans and physically challenged children in Tibet. And in conjunction with the Tibet Fund, it sends support and aid to Tibetan schools in poor rural areas.
For 30 years, Gelek Rimpoche poured a steady stream of authentic teachings into his students, without dilution or adulteration but in a language and at a pace the West could understand. He once said he had learned his English watching the soap opera Days of Our Lives. He also paid close attention to the news and cultural events of his adopted country. The result was an ability to bridge the gap between his traditional upbringing in what he termed “good old Tibet” and contemporary society in the West.
As OM Yoga founder Cyndi Lee put it, “It was delivered to us drop by drop, year after year, so we hardly realized until called upon how much we had absorbed from Rimpoche’s teachings.”
After three decades of Rimpoche’s instruction, Jewel Heart now has a vast collection of audio and video teachings available online, together with more than 32 comprehensive transcripts as well as his books Good Life, Good Death (2001) and The Tara Box: Rituals for Protection and Healing from the Female Buddha (2004).
As the renowned composer Philip Glass observed, “It became apparent when you’d been around him and seen the way he conducted his teachings that he was actually a very traditional lama in disguise.”
It was not a disguise designed to conceal. Rather, Rimpoche chose to live in the West in a manner that was approachable but unwavering in his representation of traditional teachings, and he repeatedly urged his students to question, examine, and come to their own conclusions. During one of the TV evangelist scandals of the 1980s, Allen Ginsburg was giving a workshop called “Spontaneous Poetry,” and he insisted that Rimpoche attend. Ginsburg asked people, “What are you thinking? Say it now.” As Rimpoche related it, “I kept my mouth shut. Then he turned to me and said, ‘Rimpoche, what are you thinking?’ I said, ‘I don’t want to end up in the shoes of Jim and Tammy Faye Baker.’ He said, ‘The way not to fall into that trap is to make sure you keep nothing hidden in any closet. Keep everything out in the open.’”
“Rimpoche encouraged people to investigate the teachings and practices for themselves. He stressed intelligent faith, not blind faith,” said Philip Glass.
Rimpoche himself addressed the lessons of loss and impermanence when I interviewed him for Tricycle in the fall of 2003:
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.
When I asked what lesson was to be learned from this kind of profound loss, Rimpoche replied:
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. 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, you are not only wasting a precious opportunity but also doing a tremendous disservice to others. That practice 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.
As Philip Glass concluded in a recent letter he wrote as Chair of Jewel Heart, “Of course, Rimpoche’s passing was deeply felt by us all. And surely impermanence is a hard, deep, and most careful lesson. Now he has taken his place in the Lineage. And it is left to us to care for his Legacy. He was our Perfect Teacher and I am confident he prepared us well for this joyful and awesome task.”
Finally, I asked my young son what he thought I should write about Rimpoche’s passing. “He was a great man. Humble. With no expectations of reward. He thought the best of everyone. He always knew how to answer without getting people upset. The only reward he was looking for was the happiness of others.”
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