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: In the west we don't have any real sense of "training" children.

Gelek Rinpoche: Well, the Tibetan way of training kids is not always great. Normally, kids in the monastery are just dumped with the others. If you can pick up things, you pick them up. If you don't, you don't. As an incarnate lama it's different—you have special tutors who teach you to memorize the texts and the prayers. After memorization, they send you to the commentary teachers. I had one teacher for reading, one for memorizing, and one for debate. When they teach debate, they train you to find certain points where you can state your theory, your viewpoint. They train you to protect your theory against other views and logics, and if you cannot protect it, you know you're wrong and you have to surrender. You argue in the loudest voice possible, clapping your hands and thumping your feet. You keep on debating until you are proved to be wrong or proved to be right. If you are proved right, then you begin to understand that is what Buddha's message is, and then, finally, if you are convinced, you meditate on it and adopt it as part of your life. That's how the essence of Buddhism becomes a habitual pattern.

Tricycle: How do you remember those years in the monastery?

Gelek Rinpoche: It was the best time of my life. No question.

Tricycle: You left when you were twenty?

Gelek Rinpoche: Yes, I left in '59 during the trouble between the Tibetan government and the Chinese. The old atmosphere of learning and meditation was actually lost before '59. The monastery was already contaminated with political views and taking sides. Even among the abbots—some were pro-communist and some were anti-communist, or pro-Chinese or anti-Chinese. Also among the incarnate lamas and the monks, some were pro, some anti. In early March of '59 there was word that the Dalai Lama was going to be invited by the Chinese to their military headquarters and that they told him: "Do not bring the bodyguards or weapons." In the middle of the night people went around Lhasa, knocking at doors, saying that the Dalai Lama was going to be taken away by the Chinese soldiers. As a result, carly in the morning everybody rushed to the summer palace to beg the Dalai Lama not to respond to the Chinese invitation. During that period there was one cabinet minister who was also commander-in-chief of the liberation army. He came by jeep to the palace. He was stoned by the people there.

Tricycle: Why?

Gelek Rinpoche: They thought he was a Chinese agent. And a monk official went to the meeting of the officials that they had every morning, a sort of ceremonial get-together. He went in the morning with his monk's robe on and came back later in the evening on a motorcycle, wearing Chinese jeans. People took him for a Chinese agent. They stoned him to death and dragged his body to the market area. Thereafter tension developed and it was terrible. One night, about 3:00 A.M., I woke up to the sound of cannons firing and machine guns going. Nobody knew what to do. All the monks went up on the roof, and by early afternoon we saw people and horses coming out of the Norbulingka summer palace rushing toward the river. Then a cannon went off, and we thought everybody was killed. After the dust settled we could see the people again. Then everybody went to look for a place to hide because we knew they were going to hit the monastery. I started walking toward the mountains, but the Chinese had some kind of a flare shooting into the air so that even in the mountains you can see your own shadow. We were scared to go, but we went anyway. We hid behind rocks and started counting the intervals in between flashes, so there was a "One, two, three" count and then we crossed and hid in the next crevice, or covered area. That's how I gradually came to India.

Tricycle: And then?

Gelek Rinpoche: I was a dharma teacher in the Tibetan nursery school in Simla, run by the Save the Children Fund in London, headed by Lady Alexandra Metcalfe, daughter of the Viceroy of India.

Tricycle: Many people have commented on how much your English speaking style is similar to that of the late Trungpa Rinpoche. Apparently you both learned English from the same woman. Was that Lady Metcalfe?

Gelek Rinpoche: No, that was Frieda Bedi. She was a British woman who stayed in India after independence and was a very close friend of Nehru. She married a Punjabi called Bedi. Mrs. Bedi came in contact with me in Buxador, a camp where the monks were staying, which used to be the British prison for those working for independence. They'd been locked in that camp and we were put there, but it was used as a refugee camp, not a prison camp. Mrs. Bedi visited all the refugee camps. She was interested in Tibet and adopted two young incarnate lamas and invited them to stay at her house in Delhi. One of them happened to be Trungpa Rinpoche and the other happened to be me. So that's the connection with Mrs. Bedi. Mrs. Bedi later became a Buddhist nun with the Karmapa and was called Sister Palmo.

Tricycle: And were you still a monk at that point?

Gelek Rinpoche: Yes, I was a monk at that time, but soon after I rebelled against my upbringing and picked up drinking, cigarette smoking, and...

Tricycle: Women?

Gelek Rinpoche: Yes. I was wondering all the time how sex with a woman would be. I wanted to experiment. Also, if you are not wearing a robe, you can talk freely with laypeople. I like to talk about everything. If you are a monk, there's always some kind of a gap there. That was always one consideration. Sex was another. On the other hand, I wondered what my teachers would think, what His Holiness would think, and how I was going to face them. That was the battle in my mind.

Tricycle: So then you started to lead a wild life?

Gelek Rinpoche: I was looking for some kind of very big kick, which I did not find at all—not in cigarettes, not in marijuana, not in alcohol, and not so much in sex either.

Tricycle: The fantasies made it a little overrated?

Gelek Rinpoche: The fantasies were very much overrated. And then gradually all the Rinpoches said, Well, it's unfortunate, but it is nothing unusual. A lot of people go through that. They kept on telling me that even though I gave up my monk vow, I was still a rinpoche. They told me to remember that I was within dharma.

Tricycle: You weren't tempted to go back to being a monk?

Gelek Rinpoche: No. I've received a lot of appeals from different monasteries and abbots, but I'm happy as I am. I can talk to people as a lay person, and can talk to them about their family problems, sexual problems, and companion problems. And I had a long, nice holiday. The Rinpoches let me be wild for a while, and it was a big disappointment. There are big fantasies of nightclubs, drinking, smoking cigarettes, having sex, but all of that really did not give me anything at all. As a matter of fact, it gave me more problems, more headaches. Gradually, I came back totally to dharma.

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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. :)