Yesterday Michelle Obama, an amazing woman who always strikes me as grounded, wise, and resilient under pressure, offered comfort to others by sharing how she herself of late has been coping with low-grade depression. It’s not at all hard to understand why. And people all over the world are feeling it too, for all kinds of reasons.
Lying in bed late last night, unable to fall asleep with all that’s been going on, I found myself mulling over everything seemingly wrong in my life, in my friends’ and relatives’ lives, in this country and the world at large, and not restricted to human beings. It was a lot! Yet I also realized it was nothing — on one level, a deeper level — that I couldn’t actually handle.
In these unusual and unsettling times, would you agree it is more apparent than ever that we need actively to be seeking something trustworthy? Something and/or someone to help us navigate beyond anxiety, depression, fear, anger, and overwhelming confusion to a heartfelt peace, stability, inspiration, and transcendence? The time-honored benefits of relying on a qualified spiritual guide are compelling in this regard, not just for ourselves but for others — so that we can provide an ongoing brave and safe space for them to land. If we really want to change things, I think we all need the firm basis of refuge.
Carrying directly on from this article.
In the book Great Treasury of Merit, Geshe Kelsang says that our Spiritual Guide
… is any spiritual teacher who sincerely leads us into spiritual paths by giving correct instructions.
This can be anyone – from East or West, lay or ordained, male or female, black, white, or green with pink spots. It doesn’t matter who they are as long as they are able to guide us along the spiritual path because they’ve been there themselves, always showing us an inspiring example of what is possible. That is our Spiritual Guide, that person.
We have complete choice over that – everyone in Buddhism always chooses their own Spiritual Guide, that’s how it works. I can’t tell you who yours is, but I can tell you more about mine.
Moreover, not just for me, but for this current generation of Kadampa teachers and practitioners, I would say we are probably in unanimous agreement that our Spiritual Guide is Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso Rinpoche, otherwise known as “Geshe-la”.
Just so you know, “Geshe” is short for “ge way she nyen,” the Tibetan term for “spiritual friend”. “La” is a term of endearment and respect. “Rinpoche” means “precious,” and is an honorific for highly regarded Teachers. “Kelsang” means “good fortune”. “Gyatso” means “ocean”. And “Venerable” means “Venerable.”
This generation of practitioners who have been lucky enough to be in this world with him would probably all agree that Geshe-la is our root Spiritual Guide, even if we have also received a lot of teachings from his other disciples. Some of his disciples have more experience and knowledge than us, so they can help show the path, act as role models, advise us, encourage us. But for anyone who wants to follow the path of Kadampa Buddhism to its completion, I would recommend Geshe-la as their fully qualified guide because (a) he is the obvious candidate for the job, and (b) anything we learn from any other Kadampa teacher is coming from him in any case — they’ll all tell you that. Also, any love, wisdom, or skill these practitioners have gained comes largely from following his example.
Therefore, if we can go direct to the source, then why not?! But it is nonetheless entirely up to us who we end up choosing, and it depends on our karma as well.
Within that, of course, many people have not met Geshe-la in the flesh, as it were. However, luckily, he is not a fleshy person, there is a lot more to him than that – he is an enlightened being who possesses omniscient wisdom and compassion. That’s one reason why he makes such a good Spiritual Guide — he is everywhere all the time. His physical body is like some kind of overcoat, as he once said, and not who he really is. You may not have been in his direct physical presence but you still know him.
It’s a bit like how, right now, I’m not in your physical presence and you’re not in mine – we could well be on different continents. If I know you are in London, say, and I think of you there, then my mind is in London right now, as well as up a mountain in Evergreen, Colorado looking after some friends’ chickens. Mind is extraordinary. Even an ordinary mind like mine can be anywhere I decide to put it, so of course an enlightened being’s mind can go anywhere and is everywhere all the time. Geshe-la’s mind is very much with us all the time. He said, “My mind will always be with you;” and I’m not the only one who has had innumerable experiences where I know this to be true. If we understand that enlightenment is reality, it is easier to understand the real nature and power of a Spiritual Guide.
Relying on a Spiritual Guide is a bit like tuning in and just knowing he is there. And the sheer act of knowing he is with you, always, means there is a connection and relationship right there already. From his side he already knows you. From your side you just need gradually to get to know him.
I am always with you
Geshe-la is exceedingly quiet and humble, he doesn’t really put himself forward, much less make himself the center of attention; but his wisdom is everywhere, in everything. He is in all those 23 books because he wrote them – one time he said he was like the tape recorder for the tapes of Manjushri Je Tsongkhapa’s teachings. He is responsible for over 1200+ Buddhist centers around the world and all their teachers who are his disciples. All the five World Peace Temples, portals into the Pure Land, that are being plonked all over the world — Heruka’s mandala — all come from him. All of this comes from his heart of compassion and wisdom, his enlightenment.
If you have walked through the door of any Kadampa Center or listened to the livestream of any class, you already know Geshe-la. When you see your local Kadampa teacher, or any other disciple, Geshe-la is at their heart. Buddhas’ minds can go anywhere, is everywhere, and Venerable Geshe-la has appeared in this world for the specific purpose of leading us to enlightenment. That’s all he has ever done — lead people along the path to increasing freedom and happiness. In all the 39 years I’ve known him I’ve never known him do anything else. I think this all means that he is very well qualified for this job of Spiritual Guide.
Modern Day Kadampas booklet
I want to say a bit more about him, referring to a booklet called Modern Day Kadampas written by a dear old friend called Jim Belither, who was the NKT secretary for about an aeon and is now the chief Tharpa editor (thank you for over 40 years of non-stop usefulness, Jim!) I don’t know if this booklet is still in circulation or not, but it is still true, even though many more good things have happened since its publication. (Hey, Jim, maybe you should update it … ) This tradition of Buddhism is growing fast because people are able to apply the teachings to their everyday lives and are getting results.
Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso Rinpoche is a highly respected meditation master and scholar. He was born in Tibet in 1931 and ordained as a Buddhist monk at the age of eight.
Back in the early eighties, other Tibetan Lamas such as Venerable Geshe-la’s friends and sometimes his teachers like Kyabje Song Rinpoche would come teach us and spend time with us. (Once or twice I practiced my Tibetan on them to help them feel at home, but they just laughed at me uproariously.)
Anyway, a fellow monk from Geshe-la’s childhood told me that even as a child Geshe-la was unusual. At the age of 8 or 9 he would study the philosophical treatises all day long with the rest of them, and then meditate on Lamrim all night long while they slept.
It was traditional for the young monks to have an older disciplinarian monk in charge of them, and Geshe-la and two friends had one who was almost blind. One of the little monks played a trick on him, I don’t remember what, and the elder monk was not happy: “Who did this?! I will beat you.” And Geshe-la spoke up, “It was me.” It wasn’t him, but he took the beating.
Geshe-la’s own Spiritual Guide
He studied both philosophical and practical subjects of Buddhism under many highly qualified Teachers, especially Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche.
Geshe Kelsang has likened Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche to a vast reservoir from which all Gelugpa practitioners of the present day received waters of blessings and instructions.
Trijang Rinpoche was widely revered, and Venerable Geshe-la was a heart disciple. Geshe-la has always said that everything he has and that he can pass on comes from his root Guru – he shows a very good example of relying upon his own Spiritual Guide. In this year’s Summer Festival during the commentary to Eight Verses of Training the Mind by Geshe Langri Tangpa, Gen-la Dekyong quoted Geshe-la as saying:
When I was in Lhasa I met my Spiritual Father, Vajradhara Trijang Rinpoche, for the first time. Just seeing him reminded me of Bodhisattva Langri Tangpa. I felt great devotion towards him. I often thought he must be an emanation of Langri Tangpa. A senior monk later gave me a small book that listed the names of Trijang Rinpoche’s previous incarnations, among these was the name ‘Geshe Langri Tangpa’. I was so happy to find my previous belief confirmed!
Any time and any place Trijang Rinpoche taught, Geshe-la said he would try to go:
I thought only if I receive his speech, if I hear his speech, this is enough. From his teachings, from his blessings, he gives me spiritual life, real spiritual life. I was born from him. All my teachings of Sutra and Tantra came from him. Through receiving blessings from him, I have the opportunity to benefit and help internationally with people’s spiritual development. All my ability to teach, write books, organize, help, benefit — everything came from this Lama. Without this Lama, Geshe Kelsang is powerless. He is still my life. He is still in front of me.
Coming to the West
Back in Modern Day Kadampas, it says:
Geshe Kelsang arrived in Engand in late August 1977 at the invitation of Manjushri Buddhist Centre, then Manjushri Institute. [Ed: now Manjushri KMC].
No time for the whole story here (more here), but, in brief, Geshe-la was one of two Geshes at Manjushri Institute back in the day, the other one teaching the traditional monastic Geshe studies; and he became an English citizen asap so he could freely teach what he wanted to as opposed to what Tibetan Lamas were told to teach by the Tibetan government in exile. He has always been a bit of a freedom fighter, to put it mildly. And he learned English as soon as he could. I was around by 1981, reading stuff to him in English that he’d asked me to transcribe and edit, and he was like a sponge – you only had to explain a word once and he would never have to ask twice, nor ever forget it.
When he first flew over London … and London is really big, especially for someone coming out of an 18-year solitary retreat in the Himalayas — he asked his translator: “How many people live in London?” Upon hearing the answer, 10 million, he said: “There are only 5 million people in Tibet! I must stay here and bring Dharma to London and England.” (And the rest of the Western and then whole modern world, as it turns out.)
I might have told this story in the wrong order … what brought all this about is that the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1959 and Geshe-la escaped over the Himalayas with just two texts and his robes.
After leaving Tibet in 1959, Geshe-la spent the next 18 years mainly emphasizing retreat in various locations in the Himalayan region and northern India.
He left the only country he had ever known (the snowy-mountained roof of the world), his monastery, his family, his language, to live in hot India with its very different culture, food, etc. He had lost everything, but people who saw him at that time said he remained just as blissful as ever.
(Given the unusual times we are all living through in 2020, where even my own country is feeling alien, I find there’s a lot to be inspired by in this example.)
He entered a long retreat of 18 years, receiving teachings from the Wisdom Buddha Je Tsongkhapa directly; and perhaps he might have stayed there happily forever. Luckily for us however Manjushri Institute invited him to come over and teach them — and Trijang Rinpoche asked him to accept Manjushri’s invitation. So he agreed, and that is how he ended up on that airplane over London. He came to these barbarian lands where people like you and me live, to bring us the entire path to enlightenment.
A bit more about him …
Geshe-la is a complete Yogi, having studied every teaching on Sutra and Tantra and realized it in his own experience He is happy day and night, and needs nothing from us other than our help in establishing Centers to offer the same teachings that are so precious to his heart. He has never been remotely seduced by worldly pleasures. As it says here:
His personal life continues to inspire his students as an immaculate example of someone who has found inner happiness through practicing Buddha’s teachings. Despite repeated offers from Manjushri Centre to prepare more spacious accommodation, Geshe-la continues to live there simply in the one small room that he moved into in 1977.
He has never been bothered about comfort. I remember the admin team wanted to update his very old bathroom, and he declined, saying “What does a monk need with a washer tap?” (It is worth pointing out though that he knows modern people generally prefer far higher standards of living, and encourages the NKT Centers to make everything comfortable.)
As mentioned in this article of how Kadam Dharma came to America (the so-called “frog story”), a student offered him a car, but when Geshe-la saw the famine in Ethiopia he asked this benefactor, “Can I sell the car and give it to Live Aid?” He gave his house away. If you would visit Venerable Geshe-la, you might give him a gift, only to see the next person come out holding it 😄 Everything flows through him, he is the epitome of generosity. He doesn’t need wealth, fame, or a good reputation – he has never given a monkeys about any of these things. His only interest is in helping people and in Dharma – I have never seen anything to contradict that.
He is a great healer (see this story here.) And he loves animals (he has a couple of dogs and a cat with 3 legs), with compassion for even the smallest insects. Once I was visiting him in his room at Manjushri KMC, when the wasps were dying by the window, as they do in the Summer. Picking one up, he blew ever so gently on her as she died — the love coming out of him was mesmerizing. He loves everyone like that, finds everyone to be important, with no exception, equally. For this is what Buddha teaches, and he has fully internalized those teachings. He embodies them.
This is a good example of how we can be too.
It would be really really hard to write a biography that does justice to Geshe-la. I know this because he was once kind enough to let me attempt it – just ten glorious and inspiring days later he took the project away, saying it was too hard, which is true. Someone else continued for a bit, but now I think it is shelved, at least for the time being. Me and this other person both agreed that there are just so many versions of him – hundreds of thousands of people now have stories to tell of how he has transformed their lives. How do you begin to get that down on paper?
Beyond some sparse biographical details, I think he will be known publicly with regard to the preeminent qualities of his teachings, practical example, and Dharma activities, including the tradition he has established. When I really think about that, isn’t the same true for all the great Buddhist teachers of the past, including Atisha, Je Tsongkhapa, and Trijang Rinpoche?
It appears that everyone has their own Geshe-la guiding them. And that’s how it is with an authentic Spiritual Guide, everyone has always had their own. Although there is just one moon in the sky, its reflections show up on every body of water – and in the same way, Buddhas can and do emanate in numerous receptive minds and lives.
Out of space! But there’s more in this next article. Please leave any comments you like in the box below.