Gehlek Rimpoche: The "Renegade" Lama
Gehlek’s parents were unable to flee Tibet with their son. Due to his father’s prominence and his mother’s aristocratic background, they were watched too closely to leave. His mother was put under house arrest with several other women. The treatment she received at the hands of her Chinese captors was brutal: she was dragged daily across her room by a bracelet she could not remove. When she was finally able, painfully, to cut it from her wrist, she was dragged about by her long black hair until all of it had been pulled out. She was beaten regularly, denied sleep, and fed poorly. She attempted suicide—a taboo in Buddhism—numerous times during her imprisonment. Three days after her release, her wits utterly gone, she died. Gehlek’s father, although routinely subjected to public beatings, survived his ordeal. He died in Tibet of natural causes in 1973, at the age of seventy-two. Gehlek’s three brothers have remained in Tibet, but his sister has recently settled in Washington, D.C. Gehlek talks about his parents often, especially his father, and his respect for them is evident. But only rarely will he discuss the abuse his parents suffered, and when he does his voice falls, his impish smile disappears, and rather than look out at his students, his eyes come to rest on his hands.
Within Buddhism there is a strong belief in the impermanence of this world; the body is merely a container for the consciousness, which continues on. And it is apparently this belief that allows Gehlek to move through difficult and painful situations—the loss of his homeland, the loss of his parents—with an ease and lack of despair that is at once startling and inspiring.
When Gehlek crossed the border into India in early 1959, he was all of nineteen, practically penniless, and had spent his life either in a cave or a monastery in old Tibet, which, as Gehlek is fond of pointing out, was like growing up in the seventeenth century. In India he was among a group of sixteen monks who were chosen to continue their studies with some of the great masters of the Tibetan tradition, including Ling Rimpoche and Trijang Rimpoche, the senior and junior tutors of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In 1964, he attended Cornell University on an exchange program; it was his first exposure to the West. Later, back in India, Gehlek worked for All India Radio and helped establish the Tibet House (an interface between Tibetan culture and the rest of the world) in New Delhi. He was also a member of the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala, in northern India, from 1961 to 1967, playing important roles in religious, educational, and cultural spheres.
His time in India, as well as his brief sojourn to the United States, convinced Gehlek that life as a monk was not for him. “I never had an opportunity to have teenage rebellion. I was very keen to find a life outside the robes.” At the age of twenty-five, he officially left the monastic life. A period of what might be called youthful experimentation followed: he drank, he smoked cigarettes, he tried pot, he frequented nightclubs. In retrospect, he says, it was all for naught. “It was almost the same as being a monk before I left the robe. I can drink and smoke, but there is no special kick or joy in there at all. It’s almost the same, except you can have sex with women.”
Gehlek was even married, briefly, to a Tibetan woman named Daisy, but they separated after several years. “I didn’t really want to get married,” says Gehlek. “I was somehow caught into it. Whatever I do is not right. And I realized it’s the time for me to go. That’s what happened.” Knowledge of his having left his wife still circulates in the Tibetan exile community, and some of the older Tibetan women are inclined not to take Gehlek’s standing seriously because of it. In spite of having lived apart since the seventies (and of having had a girlfriend for many years), Gehlek remained married to Daisy until her recent death. He flew to India in March of 2003 and was at her bedside during her last days. He was with her, saying prayers, when she died. As Gehlek reports, “Daisy-la had a wonderful death.”
Despite his status as a high lama in the Gelugpa tradition, Gehlek has at various times incurred, in his words, the “displeasure” of the Tibetan powers-that-be. The first time he was at odds with Dharamsala was when he renounced his vows as a monk, which he did against the express wishes of the Dalai Lama. “He accepted my apology, but there was no way His Holiness could say it was okay. I’m still not a monk.” More recently, the relationship between His Holiness and Gehlek became strained over the controversy surrounding the worship of a particular deity, Dorje Shugden (for a full report on this controversy, see the Spring 1998 issue of Tricycle). This deity had long been a special protector of the ruling Gelugpa sect but had been misused by some to fuel sectarianism among the Tibetan schools. Beginning in 1976, the Dalai Lama, on the advice of the Nechung oracle (the state oracle of Tibet), discouraged the worship of Shugden. He said that he personally disapproved of the practice, and he encouraged all those who were associated with him, either as disciples or as members of his government, to cease public worship of the deity. The Dalai Lama’s position, which some saw as a progressive effort to unify Tibetans in exile, caused considerable friction within the Gelugpa community, where the worship of Shugden has been an important tradition for centuries. For his part, Gehlek at first resisted the Dalai Lama’s entreaties. He had received the Shugden teaching from one of the tutors he shared with the Dalai Lama, Trijang Rimpoche, and out of respect for this teacher, Gehlek had not wanted to give up the ritual. In 2000, however, Gehlek received an audience with His Holiness. “His Holiness asked me, 'So what are you going to do?’ I said, 'Whatever you want me to do.’ His Holiness said, 'In that case, you should stop.’ I said, 'Yes, sir.’ And that was it.” The two men appear to have put aside any disagreements; in 2002 the Dalai Lama invited Gehlek to visit him in India, and Gehlek readily agreed.