Turning the Wheel of Dharma
Today, June 4, is the 80th birthday of my kind teacher, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, and I want to mark the occasion by writing something about him. His birthday falls auspiciously on the day of Buddha Shakyamuni’s first teaching, called Turning the Wheel of Dharma Day; and for me and thousands of other students Geshe Kelsang, or Geshe-la as we like to call him, has been the one who has turned the Wheel of Buddha Shakyamuni’s teachings for us.
There is not a snowflake’s chance in hell that I could even begin to do him justice in one blog article, of course, even though I apologize in advance for its length. But I’ll try and highlight a few of his qualities as I see it, in case you are interested in hearing some more about one of today’s most influential Buddhist masters.
Where did Geshe Kelsang come from?
Without getting into all the infinite causes and conditions that causes a great master to appear in our world, you can check out some of the biographical details of where he was born and brought up on any New Kadampa Tradition center website. After the 1959 invasion of Tibet, forcing him into exile with nothing but his robes and a couple of texts, Geshe Kelsang spent 18 years in retreat in the Himalayan mountains, meditating day and night — blissfully happy, needing nothing. I think of him first and foremost as a great Yogi, Dharma practitioner, Bodhisattva and Tantric adept. Having spent his entire lifetime from an early age learning Buddhadharma, and well over 20 years in retreat, he possesses an ocean of direct experience of all the Buddhist teachings and therefore no interest whatsoever in the paltry rewards of fame, reputation, possessions or worldly pleasure. This is entirely obvious from his exceedingly humble, simple, generous lifestyle and his exceptional teachings. It means I can trust him as he wants nothing from me other than my own Buddhist practice.
Out of faith in his own teacher, the beloved Trijang Rinpoche, and compassion for people like me, he agreed in 1977 to come to Manjushri Institute in the Lake District and teach two Buddhist texts. Then when a small group of early students sincerely requested him to stay, he agreed.
When he first flew over London, he turned to his translator and asked: “How many people are down there?!” When he heard the reply, “10 million”, he exclaimed, “But there are only 5 million people in Tibet! I must help the West.” I and many other people are a result of that intention.
Manjushri’s wisdom sword
There are uncanny parallels with the great 15th century scholar, Yogi and saint Je Tsongkhapa in terms of Geshe-la’s vision, teachings and deeds. Wielding Wisdom Buddha Manjushri’s wisdom sword, their teachings and books possess an uncommon but very similar clarity, and the instant ability to cut through confusion and suffering. When I read a book by Je Tsongkhapa, it always feels the same as receiving a teaching by Geshe Kelsang. Every sentence of Geshe Kelsang’s 22 books has power. I’ve read them all several times but if I read even one nectar-like sentence, and bring it into my heart, it instantly clears my vision and improves the flavor of my mind. With Geshe Kelsang’s books, you can never run out of quotable sentences!
His personal instructions to people have also changed their lives. He looks reassuringly normal, so we can relate to him; but he is also one of the greatest wisdom masters who has ever lived and can say and do things that are unpredictable yet deep-reachingly effective. Life is never dull.
Defier of expectations
You never know what to expect with Geshe Kelsang; he has defied expectations on a daily basis since the day he arrived over here. Gentle and kind, he nonetheless keeps his students on their toes. He doesn’t allow people to rest on their laurels for more than approximately 30 seconds – completely uninterested in their eight worldly concerns of praise, reputation and so on. He relates to his students in terms of their potential not in terms of their delusions. He is really not one for massaging an ego or cultivating a false sense of security, as he knows that our self-grasping and self-cherishing are the source of all our pain and misery. Someone senior in the tradition once said jokingly: “You aren’t anyone in the NKT until you’ve been fired three times.” Hyperbole, for sure, but Geshe Kelsang has demolished the ego-grasping of many students – all within the refuge of love and acceptance.
Modern Buddhism manifesting from ancient tradition
Geshe Kelsang had a very close relationship with his own Spiritual Guide, Trijang Rinpoche, who requested him to come to the West and approved of his adapting the presentation of the teachings for an entirely new audience. In this way the New Kadampa Tradition came into existence. Centuries-worth of authentic liberating teachings are available in a form that modern-day people can actually practice without having to abandon their modern lifestyles or retire to a mountain cave. In fact, Geshe Kelsang is showing us how to thrive in today’s overwrought world by using all the circumstances we meet to advance our spiritual practice, in the Lojong tradition of those sincerest of Buddhists, the ancient Kadampas.
The world has changed dramatically even in the last 30 years, especially with the technological revolution, but the Buddhist teachings are still working. Geshe Kelsang learnt our language fluently and translated everything we needed. When I started we would chant for hours in Tibetan! I kind of liked it, but it was entirely unsustainable even 30 years ago, and is inconceivable now! Most people are lucky if they have half an hour for formal meditation practice these days. So over the years Geshe-la has packed the profundity of the 84,000 teachings of Buddha into fewer and fewer words without losing their meaning; something that can only be pulled off by someone with rare experience and skill. This has culminated most recently in the masterpiece union of Sutra and Tantra, Modern Buddhism ~ The Path of Compassion and Wisdom. These profound yet simple instructions are even available in the most modern of formats, the eBook!
Ode to the ordained
Incredibly for this day and age, Geshe Kelsang has inspired a very large stable ordained community of monks and nuns. One day I would like to write an ode to the ordained – they are essential for the survival of the Buddhist tradition, and I think it must be harder than it ever was to be ordained, in a society that has in some ways lost its sense of history and authentic tradition. Respect and support are not as forthcoming as they used to be. These monks and nuns are brave warriors in a world that doesn’t understand the need for boundaries so well anymore. They are not allowed to live in an ivory tower, but have to become integral members of daily society without succumbing to its increasing distractions and temptations. They show the vital example of discipline, contentment and authentic happiness from within. They are amazing.
Four types of teacher
Geshe-la has also defied all old-fashioned Tibetan expectations by promoting, from day one, not just ordained monks but “four types of teacher”, as he put it, ordained, lay, female and male – all equal.
They all study together, work together, practice together. To help people everywhere have access to Buddha’s teachings in their own language and culture, Geshe-la has trained teachers of all shapes and sizes on an unprecedented scale (1100 centers and counting…) Centers start when someone reads a book or attends a meditation course and, in a grass roots movement, they ask for their own teacher in their own town or country. Then thousands of students from all around the world also get together in the New Kadampa Tradition international festivals each year.
Back in Tibet, Geshe-la was also a healer – when he revisited Tibet in the early 1980s to rebuild his first monastery Jampa Ling, the line to receive his healing blessings stretched for miles, much to the surprise of the Western students who had accompanied him. When he got to the West he changed his emphasis from healing to teaching, but there are many people who nonetheless can tell you incredible stories of healing through the force of his prayers and blessings. People with major heart attacks, aggressive cancer or in deep comas from accidents making complete and doctor-defying recoveries, children expected to die in the womb emerging healthy and beautiful, and so on. Again, no space for details – but it’d be great if any of you wanted to tell your stories in the comments.
The power of emanations
An interesting thing about Geshe-la is that many people have their own story to tell about him and his profound influence on their lives, and you wonder how there was time for him to do all this! He has only been in the West since 1977. It is as if this one small man is hundreds of people rolled into one. When you look at the sun reflected in the ocean, it comes right at you, nowhere else! But a person standing a few feet away will tell you the same thing – the sun is coming right at me! It is said that enlightened beings – anyone who has removed all obstructions from the mind and perfected all good qualities — have the power to emanate infinite forms, which are like reflections on the water of faithful minds. In that sense, I have my personal spiritual guide, you have yours. Buddha’s emanations can also appear in the form of one person due to our collective karma, and thousands of students may gather for example to hear Geshe Kelsang’s teachings; but the spiritual guide is always at the heart of each of his or her students, as if we have our own spiritual guide all to ourselves.
What is the meaning of Geshe Kelsang being here?
Geshe-la said himself that the meaning of his being here is to enable people to practice Kadam Dharma, and specifically gain a realization of the ultimate nature of things, emptiness, so as to finally escape the cycle of suffering. All the temples, study programs and so on are essential for Kadampa Buddhism to remain and flourish into future generations, but they are here for just one reason: to enable people to practice Buddha’s teachings and gain authentic freedom and happiness for themselves and others. These external developments are therefore not ends in themselves. For 30 years I have tried in many jobs to help my teacher with external developments and will always help as much as I can; but over time I have increasingly come to understand that what he appreciates more than anything else is my Dharma practice. In particular, he is happy whenever I attempt to increase my compassion and wisdom, the two wings of a bird that can fly us to enlightenment.
So, Geshe-la, out of inexpressible gratitude for everything you have done for me and so many others, today I resolve to try my best to practice all you have taught.
Your comments are most welcome.
(Here is an article about how I met him.)