“Yogi”: a modern-day mystic

By Gen Samten Kelsang.

(Para leer este artículo en español utilice este link.)

This article is celebrating the life and death of Gen Kelsang Tharpa. He is the oldest friend I have, and we shared many sweet, humorous, profound moments together, as well as many wild adventures. I feel honored to be able to share some affectionate thoughts about my dear friend.

I met Gen Tharpa when I first arrived at Manjushri Institute in 1983.  I had a burning desire to realize emptiness and become enlightened. At that time he was involved in teaching the Geshe studies program, and was teaching a course on Buddhist logic (Ta.Rig). I promptly joined the class.

In the early days at Manjushri, he was affectionally nicknamed “Yogi” because he loved meditation so much. Even then, all those decades ago, Yogi’s other-worldly and mystical side was showing its presence. Although he had a very gentle manner, his speech was powerful, and he soon became a leader in the community.

Shortly after arriving I became ordained. I found it a challenging time in my ordination, and Tharpa, with his laughter, lightheartedness, and kindness, was one of the people who kept me on track in the early days.

At heart, Gen Tharpa was a mystic. The flow of his energy was deep and powerful. He had a floating dreaminess that was attuned to understanding the mysteries of life and of death. He possessed the eternal patience of a single drop of water that wears away rock. Over the years, this patient and deep exploration of Dharma caused a profound and deep wisdom to begin to grow within him.

People would sometimes get exasperated with his inability to conform with their expectations. Little did they know that it was just because he was marching to the beat of a different drum …. a drum with a gentler, almost mirthful beat, that was not of this world. A drum that was very different from the manic cacophony a lot of us seem to march to.

Discussing emptiness with Gen Tharpa for any length of time would begin to re-shape reality. Another of his old friends told me: “One summer during ITTP (the International Teacher Training Program), while studying the Chittamatrins, Yogi and I were discussing every day how everything is the nature of mind. Life felt very spacey (in a good way) for weeks.”

Back in the early days, we travelled to India together to do pilgrimage. It was a profound and deeply bonding experience. We travelled with two other monks and went on a wild excursion to Massed Vultures Mountain, where Buddha taught the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras over 2500 years ago. We did Offering to the Spiritual Guide puja on top of the mountain.

Our conversations were mostly harmonious and friendly, but not always. Traveling back from Massed Vultures Mountain on the overnight train, I was slipping gratefully into an exhausted sleep, only to find myself suddenly pulled out of it by Gen Tharpa in the bunk above mine — doing his pujas and singing OM MANI PEME HUM really loudly. Indignant, I yelled, “Yogi! You just woke me up!” He smiled innocently: “I was just singing the mantra to lull you to sleep.” Yes, Gen Tharpa was marching to the beat of a different drum!

His natural courage, faith, and wisdom combined to summon the quiet strength and determination to deal with the challenges of life. A major challenge was his health …

Gen Tharpa had severe allergies to food, dust, and chemicals. For most of the 40 years I knew him, every day involved strict adherence to a very restrictive diet and strict vigilance towards external conditions. Often he would get ill from meeting even the smallest unfavorable conditions. Sometimes very ill.

He was very stoic with his illness. Illness was one of the main teachers in Tharpa’s life. Illness could not subdue him, so it taught him about the truth of Buddha’s words. When I reflect on this, I begin to think that if someone asked me to utter a word that summarized his life it would be this, VICTORY.

Maintaining his health involved strict discipline; however, rigidity was against his nature — he could never maintain strict discipline in a rigid manner. What I admired about him was his ability to adhere to strict discipline, but in an easy-going flexible way. He would naturally take a nap, rest a bit, eat some basic food, do some meditation, go for a walk, etc. The combination of his natural easy-going nature with a knowledge of his physical limitations and need for structure made him flow through the day, rather than stumble through it awkwardly. It was like watching a river flowing.

This quality of being flexible yet firm also appeared in his style of working with people. There was not an ounce of rigidity in him, yet he could be determined and tenacious. Combined with his skill with people and his inner courage, he was able to bring harmony to places of discord and strife.

He had the depth and vastness of mind to handle the intensity of another person’s strongest feelings, and hold the space for them to do deep inner work. With a rare combination of genuine compassion and pragmatism, he was able to help others navigate their spiritual lives and make genuine progress on the path to enlightenment.

Over the decades we have had many deep, enjoyable, and sometimes downright hilarious discussions about Dharma. Of all these conversations, one in particular changed me. We were talking about prayer and Tharpa shared an epiphany.

He described the suffering of this life as inevitable for most people. With his spaced-out and totally focused expression, he said that we often cannot protect the people we love the most. That we cannot stop their aging, their pain, their death.

There was a brief silence in the conversation. Tharpa slurped another spoon of his green spirulina soup, and I nodded wisely while contemplating the best way to fit a jumbo-sized veggie burger into my mouth. After a few moments of serious munching we resumed. He looked at me with that delightful other-worldly twinkle in his eye and said, “The way to help them is not to grieve, but to pray that we can meet them in future lives and teach them Dharma.” Maybe a basic point, but that is the moment it took root in my heart.

Gen Tharpa was one of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s first disciples. In Offering to the Spiritual Guide there is a verse:

O Protector, wherever you manifest as a Buddha,
May I be the very first in your retinue;
And may everything be auspicious for me to accomplish without effort,
All temporary and ultimate needs and wishes.

There is no doubt in my mind that in a previous life Tharpa sat making this prayer with deep sincerity and devotion. The life he has just lived and left is certain proof of that.

Being born among the Spiritual Guide’s first disciples is an experience of unusual good fortune. That does not mean it is easier. Often it is harder, and requires a disciple with strong faith and plenty of guts. The first disciples are entrusted with the responsibility of being the first emissaries of the Guru in what can be an uncomprehending society. Tharpa grew up in a time where there were no Dharma books, two or three Centers, not much by way of a Sangha support network, and many superstitions and myths about what Tibetan Buddhism actually was. Yet he triumphed, and shared what he learned with many others.

Recent photo at Madhyamaka Centre.

Three weeks ago, we video-chatted. He had just left hospital where he had been diagnosed with cancer and arrived back at Madhyamaka Centre where he was the resident teacher. Obviously he was happy to be back home, but something was different. His happiness was deep and almost other-worldly. It reminded me of a deep river, gentle, smooth, yet unstoppable. I think he gained a realization, and he was ready to go because he had gained that realization. Subsequent to his death, other people told me similar things…

“He was less in this world and more peaceful. He seemed happy that something was going to change. In retrospect, it was as if he was saying goodbye. As if he was getting ready to leave.”

Or…

“He had made peace with his illness and suffering. It was not his enemy any longer.”

After Gen Tharpa passed away, over many days and in many different places people practiced the Powa transference of consciousness puja. He was so well loved.

I have absolute conviction that he is in a Pure Land, that he was guided there by Geshe-la shortly after he left his physical body. Probably Keajra because he loved the practices of Heruka and Vajrayogini so deeply.

Gen Tharpa was wise, unorthodox, courageous, and profoundly philosophical. My dear friend, I am a better person for having known you.

_____

A short clip of Gen Tharpa talking about transforming death