On Saturday September 17th 2022, as announced by the New Kadampa Tradition office, Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso Rinpoche passed very peacefully into the clear light.
(Just a reminder — these articles share my own or friends’ personal opinions on things, NOT the official views of the New Kadampa Tradition. So do look out for articles about Venerable Geshe-la’s legacy arriving on the official Kadampa website, starting with … A quiet, humble monk who changed our world.)
I asked a friend yesterday how she felt, and she replied “I don’t know yet.” Exactly. But as the hours and days pass, more meaning is emerging for all of us, it seems. So I keep adding to this article …
This is my heart
In the 2009 Summer Festival teachings, Geshe-la said:
“Now from today our summer holiday finished, we enjoyed very much our Summer Festival 2009, wonderful, but please keep in your heart the intention to enjoy the summer festival 2010, 2011, 2013, until 2099! This is my wish and why I wish is because it gives you immense meaning in this life and future lives and it is wonderful spiritual holiday.
Whoever teaches doesn’t matter, I’m teaching Buddhadharma, my disciples, other teachers, are the same, giving my teaching. It’s the same.
The power of the teaching, the function of the teaching, is the same. The blessing is the same. You should enjoy now the teachers who are talking your own language.
So now nothing to say much. Although I myself have physically retired, my mind will always be with you. And with this organization called the International Kadampa Buddhist Union ~ NKT.
This is my heart.
I will never separate from this organization in this life, future life.
So this is my heart — even though my self has retired, my mind will always will be here, there, everywhere.
Also I have the intention to meet you from time to time if I am physically strong enough, I can visit you, it is very possible. It doesn’t matter anyway — we have many qualified spiritual teachers, managers, community, such Bodhisattva community we have, peaceful. So I do not worry because they can carry this special development, organization okay. So now it is time to say bye bye, so bye bye, thank you.”
Death, where is thy sting?
Venerable Geshe-la told his disciples that even once he has passed away, “I am always with you”; and I do feel that. As he has taught us many times, we are not our bodies:
“I always remain with you. Dying is just this physical body; in reality this [touching body] doesn’t belong to me. This body belongs to my parents, it gets sick, it dies, it suffers; it is not me. I have deep knowledge of this. My body that I always see does not exist; I have deep knowledge of this. So even if this body dies I will not. I am always with you.”
In the clear light, Geshe-la never lived nor died, and nor do we. From an appearance point of view, what is clear to me at the moment is how much he lives on in us. And we have each other. He is going nowhere.
‘”Even if I am with you, from your side you should never forget me. If you keep the connection then it will work very well, I promise.”
Up a mystic notch
I’ve been sensing that all his disciples might collectively go up a mystic notch because we now have to relate to Venerable Geshe-la as he actually is. It might get a bit cosmic.
As a close disciple and friend just put it: “Yes, I agree completely. As long as there is an Emanation Body to email for prayers or to send a question to it is easy to still see our Guru as ordinary. But when there is only the Dharmakaya Guru present, we have no choice but to turn inwards in a mystical manner.”
And another of Geshe-la’s first disciples just said: “I’ve been thinking somewhat similarly. We are no longer encumbered by the conventional. Let’s all go up a mystic notch.”
Venerable Geshe-la was never trapped in that body to begin with. As another friend put it upon first hearing the news:
“My initial feeling is that he is now just pervading everywhere, which I always felt he was, but is now even less associated with a body, so feels even more omnipresent.”
A friend just wrote this to me:
“The mantra recitation last night felt like home to me. And the prayers that I had not sung for so long needed no explanation. Straight to the heart. My winds have not been blessed like that since I was in his presence.
He was definitely there, yet even more powerfully so. An empowerment requires some imagination. Last night required none. It was a pure meeting with the Guru.”
Geshe-la has been skillfully preparing us for this for years — refusing invitations to teach or appear in public so that we could develop the confidence, based on experience, that we can still connect with him even when his body would one day be totally absent.
These kinds of experiences are showing me something. We may not always have felt it, but we have always had equal access to our Spiritual Guide. His same and unchanging love for all of us is perhaps easier to feel now that we are not imputing him on his body and location. We don’t need intermediaries. There are no hierarchical restrictions — we all have our own Spiritual Guide. If we connect with him and talk to him directly, he can talk straight back, unmediated. He will also still pray for us or our family when we ask him to.
Even more profoundly, now I think we can get a deeper sense of what it means to be the Guru Deity or Guru Buddha, We do not become “like” our Spiritual Guide — we become our Spiritual Guide. This is because our Spiritual Guide’s actual nature has always been enlightenment, reality, the Dharmakaya; and we mix and become one with this. We can be a lamp from which his light shines brightly. (More about all that here.)
The lineage lives
I am also personally inspired by remembering how Ven Geshe-la always relied upon his own Spiritual Guide, Venerable Trijang Dorjechang (1901-1981). What joy and inspiration he continued to receive after his Guru passed away, and how much he accomplished in all these years by relying on him — the entire New Kadampa Tradition, for example! He would smile and say, “He is always in front of me,” and “He is my life.” We can be like this too.
In Modern Buddhism and The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra, Venerable Geshe-la has taught us how he himself has maintained his connection with his Spiritual Guide, particularly through the practice of relying upon Guru Sumati Buddha Heruka. If we do this practice, we will never be separated from our own Spiritual Guide, Je Tsongkhapa, Buddha Shakyamuni, or Buddha Heruka; and will come to see them as the same enlightened being showing different aspects.
“For example, for me Lama Tsongkhapa is working very well, Trijang Rinpoche is working very well. This means that Guru Sumati Buddha Heruka is working very well. I explained this in Modern Buddhism, practically, through my own experience. If we have this connection from our side, then it works. It doesn’t matter if my body dies, is burnt and becomes ashes.”
It is said that thousands of Je Tsongkhapa’s disciples gained enlightenment. I am going to hazard a guess that a lot of them, maybe most?, attained enlightenment after he had passed away. So we can too.
Venerable Geshe-la died with no fanfare — he never made anything about him. If he had waited a few days I was thinking he could have died on an auspicious day (Sept 22), or he could have died dramatically during a Festival; but instead of hogging any limelight he slipped away about as unobtrusively as it is possible to do so, and when a lot of people were already in a state of surreal mourning for the Queen.
And, in another act of spiritual genius, he left the request that the Centers offer a two-day retreat once he passed, focusing on a practice that has been allowing his disciples to realize for themselves that he has not actually gone anywhere.
Someone was just saying to me, in a poignant but not unhappy way, that there was nothing left for her now in this life. I know what she meant and I asked in return, what is a precious human life when your Spiritual Guide has left his body? Clearly, we agreed, this life is even more invaluable than ever because we need to carry the flame. We also have everything we need now, thanks to him, to attain enlightenment. Yet naturally I find myself looking ahead to my next life when I shall meet my Spiritual Guide in person again: “May I be the very first in your retinue.”
But, as people are beginning to report, he really hasn’t gone anywhere. As it says in a beautiful post today on the official New Kadampa Tradition Facebook page, “many times Venerable Geshe-la told how he visits all Kadampa Centers with his mind every day.” That hasn’t stopped. Not just the Centers; he hasn’t left any of us.
“You may say that Geshe-la has died, but in reality I have not died. I will be in every Dharma centre every day; I will be looking everywhere. OK! I am not lying; this is the truth.”
As that close disciple quote above also said: “This tradition is going to start flourishing naturally, easily, effortlessly. Geshe-la is still here.”
He lives on in every one of us. And we still have each other.
By the way, there is obviously no right or wrong way to process this significant event — and, in case you’re feeling under pressure, there is no obligation to feel okay 😄 Of course people are feeling very sad; and I recall that line from the book Heart Jewel, how, when Je Tsongkhapa first passed away, the whole country was overwhelmed with sorrow at the loss of their precious Spiritual Guide.
Venerable Geshe-la’s reliquary
From what friends of friends have heard (so forgive and correct me if any details are wrong), Venerable Geshe-la told the people with him that he thought it was time to die. He then sat in meditation, withdrawing into the clear light for 4 days. As he passed away, he had a “very joyful delighted expression”.
He didn’t want any fuss to be made, so he had a private cremation and wanted his ashes simply thrown into the ocean.
Personally, I rather love this. His name means “ocean of good fortune” and unlike, say, a stupa, which is a more traditional Tibetan reliquary, the ocean can be reached everywhere.
Venerable Geshe-la and the New Kadampa Tradition
Until my death and after my death I will never forget this organization. Please cherish it, with harmony and an open mind. Don’t let it degenerate. I will always be with you. I’ll never forget you. I’ll never forget the NKT.
~ Last words of Venerable Geshe-la at Manjushri KMC, Summer Festival teachings 2009
There are different ways of understanding and perceiving the New Kadampa Tradition – like everything else, it depends on the mind.
A senior monk was saying to me yesterday (Oct 17) that he sees a tradition – the books, study programs, centers (both within and without their 4 walls), worldwide Sangha, etc – as a pipeline through which a lineage flows. Traditions come and go, but the Buddhist lineage has flown down from the time of Buddha Shakyamuni, and even long before.
Now that Venerable Geshe-la’s emanation body has disappeared, what remains? It seems harder to hold onto a dualism in which Venerable Geshe-la appears over here and the tradition appears over there, as it were. Enlightened beings can emanate as animate or inanimate objects, so, as well as emanating in individual hearts and minds, for me his words indicate that he is emanating as or pervading this tradition. (Always has been). We are no longer reciting long-life prayers for him, but when I come across mentions in other prayers for our Spiritual Guide’s emanations to remain for a very long time, such as in Offering to the Spiritual Guide, I find myself praying for this emanation in particular. Through this pipeline, may the Kadam Dharma lineage of Guru Tsongkhapa flow throughout the world, to all corners of society, bringing freedom and happiness to people’s minds. May many powerful Kadampas appear everywhere to help this happen, including you.
Your thoughts, as always, are much welcomed. There are some really helpful comments already, if you scroll down.
Some further reading: