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Gehlek Rimpoche: The "Renegade" Lama

Jane Ratcliffe

Gehlek Rimpoche belongs to the last generation of lamas to be educated within the complex and brilliant monastic system of old Tibet, a tradition supported for centuries by a culture steeped in Buddhism. The Dalai Lama and others have worked arduously to reestablish many of these monasteries in India, but it is uncertain if these institutions will be able to reproduce, in exile, the level of scholarship and spiritual accomplishment that existed in pre-1959 Tibet. Tibetan Buddhism has always relied heavily upon the oral transmission of teachings from one generation to the next, and already many of the great masters of the twentieth century have passed away without imparting their wisdom to future generations. In the absence of students qualified to receive them, many of the teachings have passed away, too.

“It’s a little scary,” says Amy Hertz, the editor of Gehlek’s book Good Life, Good Death. “I think a lot of the traditions are going to die with this generation, frankly. I think this is it. I think he’s one of the last of the great ones—what my friend used to call the gorilla lamas.’ You know, the ones that have got everything. They are big and hairy with teachings.”

Robert Thurman, Jey Song Khapa professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University and a friend of Gehlek’s for many years, does not concur. “There will be new generations. There’s something unique in the flavor of old Tibet, of course, and that will not be reproduced. But I think there might be better scholars even yet in the new Tibet because they will be bringing [their wisdom] together with more knowledge of the whole world.”

Gehlek seems to be preparing his students for either outcome. If no able teachers manifest, he would like his students to develop an ability to rely on themselves as much as possible. Conversely, if new teachers appear, his students must be prepared to meet them with an open mind. In the meantime, until that day comes, his every effort is to impart to his students the traditions and wisdom that he himself has learned, and to do so in a way that is appropriate to this culture and context.

“One of the great things about Rimpoche,” says Thurman, “is that although he can kid around with people, when he gets up there and gives an instruction, you feel it. I’ve studied with his teachers, I know his own teachers, and what I admire most about him nowadays is that when he sits down to transmit something, to give a teaching, he really seems like his teachers. He is sort of uncompromising. He transmits the deep and great patterns of the traditional lama very well, yet he has a personality that can be very ordinary.”

When Gehlek is asked if he considers his generation the last of the great lamas, he says, “Hopefully there is something else will come up.” He is silent for a long stretch, and his eyes blink behind his glasses. Is he optimistic about this new generation? “I hope so. I don’t really know. So that’s what my hope is.”

Jane Ratcliffe, author of the novel The Free Fall, teaches creative writing at The New School University, in New York City. She has studied with Gehlek Rimpoche since 1995.

Image 1: © Tri H. Luu
Image 2: © Tri H. Luu

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