Nawang Gehlek Rimpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist lama, has been called many things. “Renegade” and “wild card” are tossed around; he has also been described as both a great diviner of truth and a delinquent lama. To his students he is nothing less than a brilliant spiritual guide, one who happens to have a wicked sense of humor and an unmistakable joie de vivre. But by curious onlookers, he is viewed not without some skepticism. After all, in the relatively formal world of Tibetan Buddhism, a tradition rooted in monasticism, it is quite unusual to encounter a lama who drinks, who has smoked and had sex, who long ago renounced his vows as a monk. Tibetan lamas wear robes; they sit on high seats. They certainly don’t scoot about in Levi’s, as Gehlek does, nor do they attempt to illuminate difficult teachings with references to Matlock orDays of Our Lives. And so there is disagreement: is he a great man keeping Buddhism alive by adapting it to Western sensibilities, or is he a betrayer of the faith, a charlatan, a teacher who has become too much of the people?
For his part, Gehlek acknowledges that he walks a fine line. “I try to be very liberal, without breaking the Buddhist law,” he says, his voice a muddle of earnest English nanny and Don Corleone. “I try to utilize every loophole that I know.”
Whatever one’s opinion of Gehlek Rimpoche, it is clear that his unconventional manner of disseminating the dharma—his loophole methodology—has made him a driving force behind the shaping of a uniquely American Buddhism.
It’s an especially chilly March night in New York City, and Gehlek is about to conduct one of his regular Thursday evening talks. Jewel Heart, the Tibetan Buddhist organization he leads, is headquartered in Ann Arbor, Michigan; he oversees eight more centers around the world. The Manhattan center, founded in 1989, is nestled at the back of the American Thread Building in the Tribeca section of lower Manhattan, and is accessed through a hobbit hole of sorts off St. John’s Lane. In the 1980s, this same space promised a different type of rapture: it was Madame Rosa’s, a New Orleans style club full of black lace and red fringe and folks who pursued the path of drugs and alcohol. Now the room is painted the heavy yellow of the morning sun. The ceiling, the palest of blues, is resplendent with traditional monastic gold-leaf artwork painstakingly crafted by the cluster of Tibetan monks who have gathered around Gehlek in America. The front two-thirds of the polished wooden floor is covered with large, deep red cushions laid out in careful rows; folding chairs are stationed at the back. Along the south wall runs an elevated wooden platform on which an altar, simple in structure, crafted from light wood and draped in white katas (ceremonial scarves), holds seven bowls of saffron water, several tormas (butter sculptures) made by the monks, and an abundance of flowers. The room comfortably seats about 125 people, but has often, especially since the publication, in 2001, of Gehlek’s book Good Life, Good Death: Tibetan Wisdom on Reincarnation, received many more.
The students gather in their regular seats at 7 p.m. and talk easily with one another. They range in age from their teens to their seventies, with a roughly equal split between men and women. When Gehlek enters the room, black briefcase in hand, the chatter cools, but no one rises. This is strictly forbidden in Gehlek’s world, one of the quirks that sets him apart from much of the rest of the Tibetan lama clan. Referring to the scandals that have befallen other Buddhist teachers, he says, “I don’t want to have that funny guru relationship. I don’t want to repeat what had happened with earlier gurus.” It’s this same reasoning that’s behind Gehlek’s referring to his followers as “friends” rather than students. “The moment you say ‘student,’ it becomes like a traditional Asian-culture guru-and-disciple type of thing. I try to run away from that.” While Gehlek has asked his students to give up the outward trappings of guru devotion, like bowing or rising when he enters a room, he does still teach guru devotion as a core Tibetan Buddhist practice. Seated on his cushion, Gehlek smiles and waves to several people in the audience who have caught his attention. A stately 5’ 4″, he often mentions, with a bit of a laugh, that he should lose weight, should exercise, and so on. And occasionally a few pounds will disappear, but for the most part he remains comfortably sturdy. At home he is typically clad in blue jeans and a T-shirt, but when he delivers a talk he wears dress pants and a sweater, usually in some muted shade of gray. He also wears glasses, which he often has to remove to wipe away tears when he laughs too hard.
At times Gehlek’s voice is soft as butter in the sun, at other times gnarled and beaten. Yet the way he moves his hands, choreographed from a lifetime of mudra practice, is always elegant, as if he’s sheltering countless butterflies in his grasp. While Gehlek’s command of the English language (gleaned in part from American television) is strong, his accent and peculiar syntax keep listeners on their toes. For instance, when he forgets the correct name of an object he asks, “What you call it?” When he thinks of something tangential, which is fairly often, he is likely to say, “A funny thing came on my head.” When too many funny things come on his head and the original story is wrapped well within another within another, like Russian nesting dolls, he will pause, scratch his temple, and ask, “Why I say that?” When struggling through an endless list of dharma minutiae, of which there are many in Tibetan Buddhism, he will occasionally sum it up with, “and all this,” accompanied by a hand gesture which indicates that “all this” is, indeed, a lot. And when there are details in a story he’s not in the mood to tell, he’s apt to summarize with a simple, “blah, blah, blah.”
At the moment, in New York, Gehlek’s talks are following something he calls the “Odyssey to Freedom,” which his students have subtitled “Sixty-four Steps to Enlightenment.” These steps, printed out on a bookmark in clear numerical order, are a careful condensation of the Lam Rim, the teachings of the fourteenth- century lama Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Tonight’s teaching is on “this love compassion business.” Gehlek begins with a typically practical admonition: “I’m not a missionary,” he says. “It’s not my job to promote love and compassion. What’s helpful, I take it. What’s helpful, you take it.”
As usual, references to pop culture abound in his talks. Tonight, for example, he is discussing the antidote to hatred, which is “love, love, love. Don’t forget, l-o-v-e.” He pauses here, head tilted, a quizzical look on his face. “Is there an ‘e’ at the end? It’s not like ‘potato,’ right? I thought I might be copying Dan Quayle.” Laughter breaks out in the room. “Dan Quayle can blame cue cards, but I don’t have cue cards. . . . Remember those days?” Gehlek is silent for a moment, as if contemplating with great solemnity the fate of our former vice president. He chuckles to himself, shakes his head, and picks up where he left off—discussing the nature of hatred.
A quick wit, Gehlek rarely misses the chance to find a teaching in the most ordinary of circumstances. When one of his students drops her ring with a loud clink in the middle of a discussion about obsession, he responds by remarking, “Yes, letting go. That is it. Truly.” Once more there is much laughter. After speaking for an hour or so, he turns the floor over to questions. When no more hands are raised, he says to the gathered students, “Thank you for listening to my nonsense. If there are no more questions, I’ll close shop.”
Gehlek Rimpoche is one of a handful of American-based lamas who were trained in the monasteries of Tibet prior to the Chinese invasion of 1951. Born in Lhasa in 1939, he was raised in one of the wealthiest families in Tibet—they owned three of the four cars in the country (the fourth, presumably, belonged to the Dalai Lama). Gehlek’s father, Demo Rimpoche, was revered; his skills as a diviner were proclaimed throughout the country, and people came great distances to seek his counsel. Gehlek’s family lived in an enormous house in Lhasa, but Gehlek spent his early years in a cave with his nanny. “It was a very comfortable cave,” Gehlek reminisces. “A very modern cave.” Indeed, situated five or six miles north of Lhasa, in the mountains, Gehlek’s “cave” had four rooms, several beds with thick, cushy mattresses (“You’re talking about little luxurious life here”), two altars, a glass window and a glass door, an open-air courtyard that connected to the kitchen, a built-in toilet, and running water from a pipe rigged into a spring that bubbled above their heads.
At age four, after extensive searches and rigorous tests, Gehlek was recognized as a reincarnated lama and was whisked off to the prestigious Drepung Loseling Monastery on the outskirts of Lhasa, where he studied with some of the finest scholars in Tibet. He was a prankster even then, and often found himself in trouble. Beatings were not uncommon at the monastery, and Gehlek once received such a severe thrashing he was unable to sit properly on a horse for several days. Nevertheless, he excelled in his studies and earned his geshe degree, the equivalent of a doctorate of divinity, in half the twenty-some years normally required. During that time, he memorized over ten thousand texts; today, nearly a half century later, he is still able to quote innumerable passages from memory and to offer spontaneous translations during his talks.
Gehlek’s education at Drepung ended abruptly with the Chinese crackdown of 1959. After the uprisings of that year, in which hundreds of thousands of Tibetans were killed or imprisoned, he joined the exodus of Tibetans fleeing their homeland over the mountain passes of the southern Himalayas into India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sikkim. It was a treacherous passage. Of the twenty-eight who began the journey with Gehlek’s party, only he, his two attendants, and ten others made it to India. “Some of them got arrested. Some of them got taken back by the Chinese. Some got imprisoned. And some died on the roadside, too.”
Gehlek’s parents were unable to flee Tibet with their son. Due to his father’s prominence and his mother’s aristocratic background, they were watched too closely to leave. His mother was put under house arrest with several other women. The treatment she received at the hands of her Chinese captors was brutal: she was dragged daily across her room by a bracelet she could not remove. When she was finally able, painfully, to cut it from her wrist, she was dragged about by her long black hair until all of it had been pulled out. She was beaten regularly, denied sleep, and fed poorly. She attempted suicide—a taboo in Buddhism—numerous times during her imprisonment. Three days after her release, her wits utterly gone, she died. Gehlek’s father, although routinely subjected to public beatings, survived his ordeal. He died in Tibet of natural causes in 1973, at the age of seventy-two. Gehlek’s three brothers have remained in Tibet, but his sister has recently settled in Washington, D.C. Gehlek talks about his parents often, especially his father, and his respect for them is evident. But only rarely will he discuss the abuse his parents suffered, and when he does his voice falls, his impish smile disappears, and rather than look out at his students, his eyes come to rest on his hands.
Within Buddhism there is a strong belief in the impermanence of this world; the body is merely a container for the consciousness, which continues on. And it is apparently this belief that allows Gehlek to move through difficult and painful situations—the loss of his homeland, the loss of his parents—with an ease and lack of despair that is at once startling and inspiring.
When Gehlek crossed the border into India in early 1959, he was all of nineteen, practically penniless, and had spent his life either in a cave or a monastery in old Tibet, which, as Gehlek is fond of pointing out, was like growing up in the seventeenth century. In India he was among a group of sixteen monks who were chosen to continue their studies with some of the great masters of the Tibetan tradition, including Ling Rimpoche and Trijang Rimpoche, the senior and junior tutors of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In 1964, he attended Cornell University on an exchange program; it was his first exposure to the West. Later, back in India, Gehlek worked for All India Radio and helped establish the Tibet House (an interface between Tibetan culture and the rest of the world) in New Delhi. He was also a member of the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala, in northern India, from 1961 to 1967, playing important roles in religious, educational, and cultural spheres.
His time in India, as well as his brief sojourn to the United States, convinced Gehlek that life as a monk was not for him. “I never had an opportunity to have teenage rebellion. I was very keen to find a life outside the robes.” At the age of twenty-five, he officially left the monastic life. A period of what might be called youthful experimentation followed: he drank, he smoked cigarettes, he tried pot, he frequented nightclubs. In retrospect, he says, it was all for naught. “It was almost the same as being a monk before I left the robe. I can drink and smoke, but there is no special kick or joy in there at all. It’s almost the same, except you can have sex with women.”
Gehlek was even married, briefly, to a Tibetan woman named Daisy, but they separated after several years. “I didn’t really want to get married,” says Gehlek. “I was somehow caught into it. Whatever I do is not right. And I realized it’s the time for me to go. That’s what happened.” Knowledge of his having left his wife still circulates in the Tibetan exile community, and some of the older Tibetan women are inclined not to take Gehlek’s standing seriously because of it. In spite of having lived apart since the seventies (and of having had a girlfriend for many years), Gehlek remained married to Daisy until her recent death. He flew to India in March of 2003 and was at her bedside during her last days. He was with her, saying prayers, when she died. As Gehlek reports, “Daisy-la had a wonderful death.”
Despite his status as a high lama in the Gelugpa tradition, Gehlek has at various times incurred, in his words, the “displeasure” of the Tibetan powers-that-be. The first time he was at odds with Dharamsala was when he renounced his vows as a monk, which he did against the express wishes of the Dalai Lama. “He accepted my apology, but there was no way His Holiness could say it was okay. I’m still not a monk.” More recently, the relationship between His Holiness and Gehlek became strained over the controversy surrounding the worship of a particular deity, Dorje Shugden (for a full report on this controversy, see the Spring 1998 issue of Tricycle). This deity had long been a special protector of the ruling Gelugpa sect but had been misused by some to fuel sectarianism among the Tibetan schools. Beginning in 1976, the Dalai Lama, on the advice of the Nechung oracle (the state oracle of Tibet), discouraged the worship of Shugden. He said that he personally disapproved of the practice, and he encouraged all those who were associated with him, either as disciples or as members of his government, to cease public worship of the deity. The Dalai Lama’s position, which some saw as a progressive effort to unify Tibetans in exile, caused considerable friction within the Gelugpa community, where the worship of Shugden has been an important tradition for centuries. For his part, Gehlek at first resisted the Dalai Lama’s entreaties. He had received the Shugden teaching from one of the tutors he shared with the Dalai Lama, Trijang Rimpoche, and out of respect for this teacher, Gehlek had not wanted to give up the ritual. In 2000, however, Gehlek received an audience with His Holiness. “His Holiness asked me, ‘So what are you going to do?’ I said, ‘Whatever you want me to do.’ His Holiness said, ‘In that case, you should stop.’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ And that was it.” The two men appear to have put aside any disagreements; in 2002 the Dalai Lama invited Gehlek to visit him in India, and Gehlek readily agreed.
Gehlek does not appear to have any regrets about his decision to leave the monastic ranks, and it is clear that, to his students, part of his appeal is that he has lived the worldly life, and has walked in their shoes. “He is a very unusual teacher. For one thing, he doesn’t live like a monk anymore,” says composer Philip Glass, one of Gehlek’s longtime students. “I think for many people this might be very attractive. He also drops all ceremony, all prostrations to the guru; he doesn’t care for any of that. He discourages that. So in a way, more than any other Easterner who’s come here that I’ve come across, he has taken on the kind of community standards and behavior that teachers and students have in this country. He emphasizes the fact that he is a layperson, an ordinary person. If you have a teacher who is a celibate monk, you might think, Well, I could never attain what he’s attained or live like he lives. Clearly, that’s not an issue with Rimpoche.”
It was, in part, Gehlek’s humor, his down-to-earth sensibility, and his acceptance of worldly life that led poet Allen Ginsberg to become his student in the early nineties. Ginsberg sensed in Gehlek a kindred spirit, and the two became close friends. In the spring of 1997, when Ginsberg was diagnosed with liver cancer, he called Gehlek immediately; Gehlek was with him when he died several days later. It is evident from the way he speaks of Ginsberg even today, several years after the poet’s death, that their relationship was of special importance to him. In talks he still tends to speak of Ginsberg—or, as he is inclined to say, “Allen”—in the present tense rather than the past, which seems not a slip of the tongue but an attempt to acknowledge that, to Gehlek, Allen is still around. “As you know, Allen Ginsberg is a slightly short-tempered bald guy. You can read Howl and you’ll know,” says Gehlek, clearly delighted with his subject matter. “But if you know the Allen Ginsberg of the later part of his life, he was really sweet, kind, and gentle person. And no pride whatsoever for being a famous poet, almost like an American legendary poet. He doesn’t have single pride for that whatsoever.”
Gehlek recalls an early exchange with Ginsberg that proved critical in his thinking about how to teach the dharma in America. He was attending a “spontaneous poetry workshop” lead by Ginsberg—the poet would point to a student and ask him to say whatever came to mind. This was when the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker scandal was playing out all over the news, and Gehlek admits that he was daydreaming about the Bakker saga when Ginsberg called on him. He said, “ I don’t think this is poetry, but I was just worrying that I might end up in Tammy Faye Bakker’s shoes.” Ginsberg’s reply? “The way not to fall into that trap is to make sure you keep nothing hidden in any closet. No matter what it is, don’t hide it. Keep everything out in the open.” Gehlek says that he took this advice very much to heart in his work in this country.
It was after he had been living in India for several years that Gehlek’s teachers began to urge him to take up his responsibilities as a dharma teacher. He did so reluctantly at first, but word of his depth and teaching abilities spread, and soon students began to approach him. In the late seventies, he was encouraged by the Dalai Lama to settle in the West and teach. He took a job as a research consultant at Case Western Reserve University, in Ohio, and became an instructor of Tibetan language at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. It was there that he founded, in 1988, the first of the Jewel Heart centers. The early years of the center were lean; to fund the organization, students held garage sales at which they tagged everything from lawn mowers to panties. Gehlek is fond of saying that Jewel Heart got its start by selling underwear.
Life in America has suited him. “I really feel home here,” he says. In 1995 he became an American citizen, and after years of keeping a keen eye on politics, he was finally able to vote. He lives in a spacious house outside of Ann Arbor and also has an apartment in New York City, where he stays when he flies in for teachings, which is often weekly. Gehlek is a night owl by nature and an early riser by necessity. He doesn’t get all that much sleep. He wakes around six, says his prayers (often requiring several hours), eats breakfast, then begins his day of being constantly, readily available to anyone who needs his help. This can take the form of phone calls, visitors to his home and office (he has an open door policy for both), talks at Jewel Heart, and travels to various centers that have invited him to speak.
If Gehlek tires, he doesn’t let it show. Students turn to him for everything from proof that karma exists to advice on whether the person they want to ask out is the right one, and if so, how they should go about doing it. “Everybody has really a valid reason why they need to [talk to me], so I try to say whatever I can,” says Gehlek. “When I’m giving lectures and talks, I don’t get too much tired at all, but when I have one-on-one person talking, I really get tired. I don’t know why. So much energy it takes.”
Gehlek Rimpoche belongs to the last generation of lamas to be educated within the complex and brilliant monastic system of old Tibet, a tradition supported for centuries by a culture steeped in Buddhism. The Dalai Lama and others have worked arduously to reestablish many of these monasteries in India, but it is uncertain if these institutions will be able to reproduce, in exile, the level of scholarship and spiritual accomplishment that existed in pre-1959 Tibet. Tibetan Buddhism has always relied heavily upon the oral transmission of teachings from one generation to the next, and already many of the great masters of the twentieth century have passed away without imparting their wisdom to future generations. In the absence of students qualified to receive them, many of the teachings have passed away, too.
“It’s a little scary,” says Amy Hertz, the editor of Gehlek’s book Good Life, Good Death. “I think a lot of the traditions are going to die with this generation, frankly. I think this is it. I think he’s one of the last of the great ones—what my friend used to call the gorilla lamas.’ You know, the ones that have got everything. They are big and hairy with teachings.”
Robert Thurman, Jey Song Khapa professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University and a friend of Gehlek’s for many years, does not concur. “There will be new generations. There’s something unique in the flavor of old Tibet, of course, and that will not be reproduced. But I think there might be better scholars even yet in the new Tibet because they will be bringing [their wisdom] together with more knowledge of the whole world.”
Gehlek seems to be preparing his students for either outcome. If no able teachers manifest, he would like his students to develop an ability to rely on themselves as much as possible. Conversely, if new teachers appear, his students must be prepared to meet them with an open mind. In the meantime, until that day comes, his every effort is to impart to his students the traditions and wisdom that he himself has learned, and to do so in a way that is appropriate to this culture and context.
“One of the great things about Rimpoche,” says Thurman, “is that although he can kid around with people, when he gets up there and gives an instruction, you feel it. I’ve studied with his teachers, I know his own teachers, and what I admire most about him nowadays is that when he sits down to transmit something, to give a teaching, he really seems like his teachers. He is sort of uncompromising. He transmits the deep and great patterns of the traditional lama very well, yet he has a personality that can be very ordinary.”
When Gehlek is asked if he considers his generation the last of the great lamas, he says, “Hopefully there is something else will come up.” He is silent for a long stretch, and his eyes blink behind his glasses. Is he optimistic about this new generation? “I hope so. I don’t really know. So that’s what my hope is.”
Gehlek Rimpoche on the fleeting nature of this life:
We all have this idea: “I won’t die today.” Everyone thinks like that, including people on their deathbed. We visit someone at the hospital. We all know they are dying. They know it, too, but still they talk about what they’ll do next week. It’s important for us to remember that. Why is it important? Our troubles come unexpectedly, particularly death. You go see a doctor, and the doctor says, “You’re fine.” You get into your car, then you have a crash and die. It can happen.
This is to remind people that this life is wonderful, but there are limitations. Before those limitations take over, achieve what you want to achieve. Do something while you are able to. Right now everything is wonderful, enjoyable, but that well being is temporary. It could change at any minute. Anything can go wrong at any moment.
This talk of death or impermanence is not meant to make you afraid. The whole purpose of it is for you to have compassion for yourself. And travel well.
From Good Life, Good Death, © 2001 by Nawang Gehlek. Reprinted with permission of Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc.