A Lama For All Seasons

An Interview with Gelek RinpocheHelen Tworkov

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Gelek Rinpoche, a lama trained in the Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, is the spiritual director of the Jewel Heart Tibetan Cultural Institute and Buddhist Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Identified as a lama before the age of five, he began his training in Central Tibet, where he studied with a hermit teacher, and later joined Drepung Loseling Monastery, where he remained for fourteen years. In 1959, amid political unrest, Gelek Rinpoche, then twenty, escaped to India.

Since settling in the United States in the late 1980s he has been traveling and teaching regularly at centers in New York, Chicago, Cleveland, and Lincoln, Nebraska, as well as in the Netherlands, Southeast Asia, Canada, Mexico, and Brazil. He became a citizen of the United States in July. This interview was conducted for Tricycle by Helen Tworkov in Ann Arbor.


Tricycle: Your own tradition is the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism. How would you define Vajrayana?

Gelek Rinpoche: The purpose of Buddhism is to cut down anger, hatred, and jealousy. The way you do it is very simple. If you cannot handle an attachment, then you completely cut out whatever helps the attachment grow. It comes down to discipline. Theravadin teachings encourage a very strict discipline. The Mahayana approach is slightly different. You make use of your attachment in order to benefit others. In the Mahayana, attachment can be a useful tool for a bodhisattva.

Tricycle: Can you give a specific example of that?

Gelek Rinpoche: Bodhisattvas, for instance, use love and compassion. They also use attachment itself to build close relationships that can lead people to the path. The bodhisattva may use some of those attachments to help others. In Vajrayana the most important technique is transformation. Instead of cutting something like attachment out, you transfPhoto by Brian Grahamorm it. Instead of the difficult, disciplined way of pushing something down, suppressing it, cutting it out—instead, you work with that, play with that, and then try to transform it. Tantras use attachment as a path, as a method.

The second most important technique in the Vajrayana is visualization. We have five skandhas, or the five aggregates [form, sensation, perception, mental formations, consciousness]. The essence of the Vajrayana is to transform these five aggregates into five wisdoms through visualizations and other techniques. We play with our emotions and work with them. It is a very quick path. In the Theravadin tradition the goal is the arhant level, total freedom from pain, sufferings, and delusions. The goal in the Mahayana tradition is the buddha state, or buddhahood, which is the one state beyond the arhant level—but it takes aeons to reach. And in the Vajrayana, the goal is Buddhahood, which is considered reachable within your lifetime, whatever short amount of life you have left. So Vajrayana is a very quick path and a very sharp, dangerous path. If you do not know how to handle it, then you have a problem. It's like catching a snake. If you know how to do it, there's no problem. If you don't know how, it will bite you.

Tricycle: Why is it dangerous?

Gelek Rinpoche: You play with emotions and you play with negative emotions, like attachment and anger, and you try to transform them. If you do not know what to do with it, you will lose your power, and the emotions will take over.

Tricycle: So there's a chance in the practice that you can exaggerate anger for the purpose of working with it, but then if you can't transform it, you have more anger?

Gelek Rinpoche: That's right. Also arrogance. A lot of Buddhist practitioners—quite a number of them—are very arrogant.

Tricycle: Is there something in the practice itself that accounts for that?

Gelek Rinpoche: When you meditate on love and compassion, in the Mahayana tradition, you sit and close your eyes. You visualize that you are the most important person and all the sentient beings are nameless, faceless dots that we meditate on: we are giving them love, compassion, and we are purifying them, making them perfect. These sorts of mental exercises are all done with nameless, faceless dots. One day the dots have a name and a face. You freak out! You say, "Oh, you're not supposed to say that. You're supposed to go do whatever I told you to." So that is where arrogance comes in, in my opinion.

Tricycle: So when you're just sitting quietly, meditating on love and kindness, your sense of self-importance grows?

Gelek Rinpoche: Yes. Without realizing it, you feed your sense of self, your ego. Then a person loses humility, which is a very important Buddhist quality. For example, look at His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He might have lost his country, but he's still the Dalai Lama. But how humble he is. We lose humility because we feed our ego by being the lord of the universe, feeding everyone with love and compassion. That is a problem. I always emphasize meditating on compassion for a living person, your family, persons you care for, and then expanding on that.

Tricycle: How old were you when you were recognized as an incarnate lama?

Gelek Rinpoche: I was about four. I found a place as a reincarnation of one of the abbots of the Gyuto Monastery. Then I went to Drepung, one of the largest monasteries in Tibet, in central Lhasa, which had 13,000 monks. I also had a great teacher who was a hermit who lived in retreat about 3 or 4 miles from the monastery. First I was put with him—on one condition. He said he would keep me if I were left alone. No attendant, nothing. My father said, "That's great."

Tricycle: What did he teach you first?

Gelek Rinpoche: He taught me to memorize and then to meditate. I was put with his senior students, and I used to look around and repeat what I saw. He used to tell me that the life I had was extremely important, very precious, and he told me to think about it. He said, If you think it is not important, tell me, and if you think it is important, tell me why. He was so kind, and at the same time he said, You should not be spoiled. He used to let me sleep on the floor sometimes, and sometimes he sent me out in the valley to dig up the roots of some berries, put them in water, take them outside and put them in the sun, and then take them back in the evening. That was my tea.

Tricycle: How long did you live with him?

Gelek Rinpoche: A very short period, not even a year. I joined the monastery and then lived with him again for a couple of years when I was seven or eight. After that I was sent back to the monastery to do normal Buddhist studies for fourteen years.

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susanogradyphd's picture

Gelek Rinpche is a wise and thoughtful teacher. Thank you for this interview on this first day of the new year. It is very relevant in so many ways.

jackelope65's picture

I really liked the honesty in this interview, but I wonder on suffering if all joys may become suffering if addiction to that joy occurs: food- craving, obesity, ridicule, physical limitations, heart attack, stroke, disability premature death, etc. Even addiction to water( It occurs.) may cause craving and death. So there is not much, if anything, that may not lead to suffering: yes, even sex. I may have misunderstood. Thank you.

Shubhangi Karnik's picture

Very open and sincere answers to all the questions. I think teachers like Gelek Rinpoche might be more helpful for 21st century Buddhist practitioners because they are more familiar with addictions and problems of today's age. they have seen it all and are non-sectarian in a sense.

Danzen's picture

Thanks Tricycle for bringing this interview to us. Gelek Rinpoche`s life and views brought on alot of thought.

Misha's picture

I really enjoyed this interview, and Gelek Rinpoche's views on Tibet and on the West. As a side note, however, I do think that the idea that Theravada aspires to a lesser enlightenment, that it will only get you so far and cannot achieve Buddha-hood, is a misguided one. I have heard this idea echoed amongst others in Tibetan circles, and I think it is an unfortunate misunderstanding. Here is a Theravada perspective, which is based on the Pali scriptures, for the record: http://www.tbsa.org/arahant.htm
Obviously the Buddha taught how to become a Buddha, and he wasn't a Mahayana or Tibetan Buddhist. :)