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Gehlek Rimpoche: The "Renegade" Lama

Jane Ratcliffe

Nawang Gehlek Rimpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist lama, has been called many things. “Renegade” and “wild card” are tossed around; he has also been described as both a great diviner of truth and a delinquent lama. To his students he is nothing less than a brilliant spiritual guide, one who happens to have a wicked sense of humor and an unmistakable joie de vivre. But by curious onlookers, he is viewed not without some skepticism. After all, in the relatively formal world of Tibetan Buddhism, a tradition rooted in monasticism, it is quite unusual to encounter a lama who drinks, who has smoked and had sex, who long ago renounced his vows as a monk. Tibetan lamas wear robes; they sit on high seats. They certainly don’t scoot about in Levi’s, as Gehlek does, nor do they attempt to illuminate difficult teachings with references to Matlock or Days of Our Lives. And so there is disagreement: is he a great man keeping Buddhism alive by adapting it to Western sensibilities, or is he a betrayer of the faith, a charlatan, a teacher who has become too much of the people?

For his part, Gehlek acknowledges that he walks a fine line. “I try to be very liberal, without breaking the Buddhist law,” he says, his voice a muddle of earnest English nanny and Don Corleone. “I try to utilize every loophole that I know.”

Whatever one’s opinion of Gehlek Rimpoche, it is clear that his unconventional manner of disseminating the dharma—his loophole methodology—has made him a driving force behind the shaping of a uniquely American Buddhism.

It’s an especially chilly March night in New York City, and Gehlek is about to conduct one of his regular Thursday evening talks. Jewel Heart, the Tibetan Buddhist organization he leads, is headquartered in Ann Arbor, Michigan; he oversees eight more centers around the world. The Manhattan center, founded in 1989, is nestled at the back of the American Thread Building in the Tribeca section of lower Manhattan, and is accessed through a hobbit hole of sorts off St. John’s Lane. In the 1980s, this same space promised a different type of rapture: it was Madame Rosa’s, a New Orleans style club full of black lace and red fringe and folks who pursued the path of drugs and alcohol. Now the room is painted the heavy yellow of the morning sun. The ceiling, the palest of blues, is resplendent with traditional monastic gold-leaf artwork painstakingly crafted by the cluster of Tibetan monks who have gathered around Gehlek in America. The front two-thirds of the polished wooden floor is covered with large, deep red cushions laid out in careful rows; folding chairs are stationed at the back. Along the south wall runs an elevated wooden platform on which an altar, simple in structure, crafted from light wood and draped in white katas (ceremonial scarves), holds seven bowls of saffron water, several tormas (butter sculptures) made by the monks, and an abundance of flowers. The room comfortably seats about 125 people, but has often, especially since the publication, in 2001, of Gehlek’s book Good Life, Good Death: Tibetan Wisdom on Reincarnation, received many more.

The students gather in their regular seats at 7 p.m. and talk easily with one another. They range in age from their teens to their seventies, with a roughly equal split between men and women. When Gehlek enters the room, black briefcase in hand, the chatter cools, but no one rises. This is strictly forbidden in Gehlek’s world, one of the quirks that sets him apart from much of the rest of the Tibetan lama clan. Referring to the scandals that have befallen other Buddhist teachers, he says, “I don’t want to have that funny guru relationship. I don’t want to repeat what had happened with earlier gurus.” It’s this same reasoning that’s behind Gehlek’s referring to his followers as “friends” rather than students. “The moment you say 'student,’ it becomes like a traditional Asian-culture guru-and-disciple type of thing. I try to run away from that.” While Gehlek has asked his students to give up the outward trappings of guru devotion, like bowing or rising when he enters a room, he does still teach guru devotion as a core Tibetan Buddhist practice. Seated on his cushion, Gehlek smiles and waves to several people in the audience who have caught his attention. A stately 5' 4", he often mentions, with a bit of a laugh, that he should lose weight, should exercise, and so on. And occasionally a few pounds will disappear, but for the most part he remains comfortably sturdy. At home he is typically clad in blue jeans and a T-shirt, but when he delivers a talk he wears dress pants and a sweater, usually in some muted shade of gray. He also wears glasses, which he often has to remove to wipe away tears when he laughs too hard.

At times Gehlek’s voice is soft as butter in the sun, at other times gnarled and beaten. Yet the way he moves his hands, choreographed from a lifetime of mudra practice, is always elegant, as if he’s sheltering countless butterflies in his grasp. While Gehlek’s command of the English language (gleaned in part from American television) is strong, his accent and peculiar syntax keep listeners on their toes. For instance, when he forgets the correct name of an object he asks, “What you call it?” When he thinks of something tangential, which is fairly often, he is likely to say, “A funny thing came on my head.” When too many funny things come on his head and the original story is wrapped well within another within another, like Russian nesting dolls, he will pause, scratch his temple, and ask, “Why I say that?” When struggling through an endless list of dharma minutiae, of which there are many in Tibetan Buddhism, he will occasionally sum it up with, “and all this,” accompanied by a hand gesture which indicates that “all this” is, indeed, a lot. And when there are details in a story he’s not in the mood to tell, he’s apt to summarize with a simple, “blah, blah, blah.”

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