Gehlek Rimpoche: The "Renegade" Lama
Gehlek does not appear to have any regrets about his decision to leave the monastic ranks, and it is clear that, to his students, part of his appeal is that he has lived the worldly life, and has walked in their shoes. “He is a very unusual teacher. For one thing, he doesn’t live like a monk anymore,” says composer Philip Glass, one of Gehlek’s longtime students. “I think for many people this might be very attractive. He also drops all ceremony, all prostrations to the guru; he doesn’t care for any of that. He discourages that. So in a way, more than any other Easterner who’s come here that I’ve come across, he has taken on the kind of community standards and behavior that teachers and students have in this country. He emphasizes the fact that he is a layperson, an ordinary person. If you have a teacher who is a celibate monk, you might think, Well, I could never attain what he’s attained or live like he lives. Clearly, that’s not an issue with Rimpoche.”
It was, in part, Gehlek’s humor, his down-to-earth sensibility, and his acceptance of worldly life that led poet Allen Ginsberg to become his student in the early nineties. Ginsberg sensed in Gehlek a kindred spirit, and the two became close friends. In the spring of 1997, when Ginsberg was diagnosed with liver cancer, he called Gehlek immediately; Gehlek was with him when he died several days later. It is evident from the way he speaks of Ginsberg even today, several years after the poet’s death, that their relationship was of special importance to him. In talks he still tends to speak of Ginsberg—or, as he is inclined to say, “Allen”—in the present tense rather than the past, which seems not a slip of the tongue but an attempt to acknowledge that, to Gehlek, Allen is still around. “As you know, Allen Ginsberg is a slightly short-tempered bald guy. You can read Howl and you’ll know,” says Gehlek, clearly delighted with his subject matter. “But if you know the Allen Ginsberg of the later part of his life, he was really sweet, kind, and gentle person. And no pride whatsoever for being a famous poet, almost like an American legendary poet. He doesn’t have single pride for that whatsoever.”
Gehlek recalls an early exchange with Ginsberg that proved critical in his thinking about how to teach the dharma in America. He was attending a “spontaneous poetry workshop” lead by Ginsberg—the poet would point to a student and ask him to say whatever came to mind. This was when the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker scandal was playing out all over the news, and Gehlek admits that he was daydreaming about the Bakker saga when Ginsberg called on him. He said, “ I don’t think this is poetry, but I was just worrying that I might end up in Tammy Faye Bakker’s shoes.” Ginsberg’s reply? “The way not to fall into that trap is to make sure you keep nothing hidden in any closet. No matter what it is, don’t hide it. Keep everything out in the open.” Gehlek says that he took this advice very much to heart in his work in this country.
It was after he had been living in India for several years that Gehlek’s teachers began to urge him to take up his responsibilities as a dharma teacher. He did so reluctantly at first, but word of his depth and teaching abilities spread, and soon students began to approach him. In the late seventies, he was encouraged by the Dalai Lama to settle in the West and teach. He took a job as a research consultant at Case Western Reserve University, in Ohio, and became an instructor of Tibetan language at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. It was there that he founded, in 1988, the first of the Jewel Heart centers. The early years of the center were lean; to fund the organization, students held garage sales at which they tagged everything from lawn mowers to panties. Gehlek is fond of saying that Jewel Heart got its start by selling underwear.
Life in America has suited him. “I really feel home here,” he says. In 1995 he became an American citizen, and after years of keeping a keen eye on politics, he was finally able to vote. He lives in a spacious house outside of Ann Arbor and also has an apartment in New York City, where he stays when he flies in for teachings, which is often weekly. Gehlek is a night owl by nature and an early riser by necessity. He doesn’t get all that much sleep. He wakes around six, says his prayers (often requiring several hours), eats breakfast, then begins his day of being constantly, readily available to anyone who needs his help. This can take the form of phone calls, visitors to his home and office (he has an open door policy for both), talks at Jewel Heart, and travels to various centers that have invited him to speak.
If Gehlek tires, he doesn’t let it show. Students turn to him for everything from proof that karma exists to advice on whether the person they want to ask out is the right one, and if so, how they should go about doing it. “Everybody has really a valid reason why they need to [talk to me], so I try to say whatever I can,” says Gehlek. “When I’m giving lectures and talks, I don’t get too much tired at all, but when I have one-on-one person talking, I really get tired. I don’t know why. So much energy it takes.”