Gehlek Rimpoche: The "Renegade" Lama
At the moment, in New York, Gehlek’s talks are following something he calls the “Odyssey to Freedom,” which his students have subtitled “Sixty-four Steps to Enlightenment.” These steps, printed out on a bookmark in clear numerical order, are a careful condensation of the Lam Rim, the teachings of the fourteenth- century lama Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Tonight’s teaching is on “this love compassion business.” Gehlek begins with a typically practical admonition: “I’m not a missionary,” he says. “It’s not my job to promote love and compassion. What’s helpful, I take it. What’s helpful, you take it.”
As usual, references to pop culture abound in his talks. Tonight, for example, he is discussing the antidote to hatred, which is “love, love, love. Don’t forget, l-o-v-e.” He pauses here, head tilted, a quizzical look on his face. “Is there an 'e' at the end? It’s not like 'potato,’ right? I thought I might be copying Dan Quayle.” Laughter breaks out in the room. “Dan Quayle can blame cue cards, but I don’t have cue cards. . . . Remember those days?” Gehlek is silent for a moment, as if contemplating with great solemnity the fate of our former vice president. He chuckles to himself, shakes his head, and picks up where he left off—discussing the nature of hatred.
A quick wit, Gehlek rarely misses the chance to find a teaching in the most ordinary of circumstances. When one of his students drops her ring with a loud clink in the middle of a discussion about obsession, he responds by remarking, “Yes, letting go. That is it. Truly.” Once more there is much laughter. After speaking for an hour or so, he turns the floor over to questions. When no more hands are raised, he says to the gathered students, “Thank you for listening to my nonsense. If there are no more questions, I’ll close shop.”
Gehlek Rimpoche is one of a handful of American-based lamas who were trained in the monasteries of Tibet prior to the Chinese invasion of 1951. Born in Lhasa in 1939, he was raised in one of the wealthiest families in Tibet—they owned three of the four cars in the country (the fourth, presumably, belonged to the Dalai Lama). Gehlek’s father, Demo Rimpoche, was revered; his skills as a diviner were proclaimed throughout the country, and people came great distances to seek his counsel. Gehlek’s family lived in an enormous house in Lhasa, but Gehlek spent his early years in a cave with his nanny. “It was a very comfortable cave,” Gehlek reminisces. “A very modern cave.” Indeed, situated five or six miles north of Lhasa, in the mountains, Gehlek’s “cave” had four rooms, several beds with thick, cushy mattresses (“You’re talking about little luxurious life here”), two altars, a glass window and a glass door, an open-air courtyard that connected to the kitchen, a built-in toilet, and running water from a pipe rigged into a spring that bubbled above their heads.
At age four, after extensive searches and rigorous tests, Gehlek was recognized as a reincarnated lama and was whisked off to the prestigious Drepung Loseling Monastery on the outskirts of Lhasa, where he studied with some of the finest scholars in Tibet. He was a prankster even then, and often found himself in trouble. Beatings were not uncommon at the monastery, and Gehlek once received such a severe thrashing he was unable to sit properly on a horse for several days. Nevertheless, he excelled in his studies and earned his geshe degree, the equivalent of a doctorate of divinity, in half the twenty-some years normally required. During that time, he memorized over ten thousand texts; today, nearly a half century later, he is still able to quote innumerable passages from memory and to offer spontaneous translations during his talks.
Gehlek’s education at Drepung ended abruptly with the Chinese crackdown of 1959. After the uprisings of that year, in which hundreds of thousands of Tibetans were killed or imprisoned, he joined the exodus of Tibetans fleeing their homeland over the mountain passes of the southern Himalayas into India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sikkim. It was a treacherous passage. Of the twenty-eight who began the journey with Gehlek’s party, only he, his two attendants, and ten others made it to India. “Some of them got arrested. Some of them got taken back by the Chinese. Some got imprisoned. And some died on the roadside, too.”