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Born in Lhasa, Tibet in 1939, Gehlek Rimpoche was recognized as an incarnate lama at the age of four. Prior to fleeing Tibet during the Chinese invasion in 1959, he was one of the last lamas to be fully educated in the legendary Drepung Monastery, Tibet’s largest monastic institution. At the age of twenty-five, Gehlek Rimpoche gave up monastic life, and in the following years he worked for All India Radio and as an editor for the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Delhi. In the late 1970s, he was directed by his teachers, Kyabje Ling Rimpoche and Kyabje Trijang Rimpoche, to begin teaching Western students. He established a teaching center in the Netherlands in 1985 and, in 1987, founded the meditation center Jewel Heart in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It now has chapters across the U.S. and throughout the world. Gehlek Rimpoche was interviewed in April at his New York City apartment by Tricycle contributing editor Mark Magill.
We face loss of one kind or another all the time—the loss of possessions, of friendships, lovers, parents. We lose our good looks, our hair, reading vision, hearing, memory, and finally our bodies. What can we learn from this? We have two choices. Either we go crazy and try to turn the sky upside down, or we try to understand the situation. Samsara, our everyday existence, is suffering. And loss is very much a part of samsara. In my case, when I fled Tibet, I had the personal experience of losing my homeland, property, teachers, students, friends, and attendants overnight.
How did you respond to that loss? When you are simply running for your life, the question of loss doesn’t come up. But once you stop running, you begin to miss the things you need. You need food, but you don’t have food. You need shelter, but there is no shelter. You need a horse, but you don’t have a horse.
You finally stop to smell the coffee, but there’s no coffee. Not even a coffeepot. But in my personal case, the appreciation that I was alive made it easier. That and the understanding that this samsaric life is like a magician’s show. It is here now and gone tomorrow. Understanding that helps you to adapt to the situation. Otherwise, you can moan and grieve for a long, long time. You deprive yourself of an opportunity to celebrate this wonderful life and take advantage of what it can offer. It is your choice. The world we are living in is impermanent. It changes from better to worse and vice versa. One has to understand that. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t mourn. There’s nothing wrong with feeling loss. But when you decide to let it go, and move on, after a little while you might find you’re still thinking about it.
Meaning? You have to develop determination of mind. You have to apply your mental power, what you might call good old-fashioned willpower.
How is that developed? You have to reason with yourself: “I have much more important things to do with my life. I want to be of some benefit to myself and others. Am I going to act like a silly little goat and push myself down into depression? Or am I going to use my intelligence for some good?” You reason like this and you remind yourself that you have already decided to let it go. You allow yourself a certain time for mourning. When that time is over, let it be over. I was in Holland two years ago and I lost my bag. I happened to have ten thousand dollars in cash in that bag. This was much more than I had in all of my bank accounts put together. I also lost my credit cards and identification. This was on a Saturday. I couldn’t do anything or even leave the hotel until Monday. So I allowed myself to mourn the loss of my property, because I had nothing else to do at that time. By Monday morning I decided that it was time to stop. I dedicated the loss of the money to the benefit of all beings and particularly to those who took it. Even so, every twenty minutes I would think, “Oh my God, I lost a lot. How embarrassing if other people know.” When that happened, I told myself that I had already dedicated it. It was no longer mine. It was gone. So what was I crying for?
You say that appreciation of your life helped you accept change when you were forced to leave your country. Is appreciation in some way an antidote to loss? Appreciation may not be an antidote, but it helps to cope.
I’ve noticed that when you buy something, whether for yourself or others, you only buy the best quality. That is a habit from childhood. My family was quite well off. They wouldn’t own anything shoddy. Even now I don’t buy junk. Wherever my eyes land, it always happens to be on the most expensive things. I would rather have old shoes than buy junk shoes. This is habit. Which shows that habits are more difficult to get rid of than the effects of grief or desire. I lost everything when I left Tibet, but my habits came with me.
Your habit leads you to objects of the finest quality. But you are not going to have them forever. Is this a problem? No, it is not a problem. When it is lost, it is lost.
Is there any benefit to having things of great quality around? Is there anything that comes from the appreciation of quality itself? My view is, your ability to appreciate acts as a kind of measure. You can’t appreciate something if you are afraid of losing it. You are absolutely correct. If you appreciate something, then you will enjoy it. If you cannot enjoy it, it becomes more burden than pleasure. The fear of loss takes over. So you live in constant threat. It is the same way with power. Even the president of the United States becomes a prisoner. He cannot talk to just anyone. He has to be guarded and protected around the clock. This is samsara. Joy and pleasure are changed into a nightmare. Even rock stars or movie stars are only a little better off than the president. They have to hide behind bodyguards in fear of what might happen. Average people like us should really appreciate our lives because of the freedom we enjoy. It is the same with possessions. We lose our appreciation of them when we become controlled by the fear of loss. The problem is not with the objects; it is with our attitude. As long as we can appreciate and enjoy them, fine.
I was giving a talk in Hong Kong once. Afterward, a fellow asked me, “Do I have to give up my Rolls Royce?” I told him that as long as he drove the Rolls Royce he was okay. But when the Rolls Royce started driving him, he’d be in trouble.
We desire power, prestige, position, wealth, status. But when we have them, we do not enjoy them; we are driven by them instead. We have to understand that whatever we have will be lost. The end of the wealth is poverty. The end of fame is obscurity. The end of life is death. That is the nature of samsara.
This appreciation of friends or things of quality automatically leads to enjoyment, doesn’t it? There is nothing wrong with enjoyment.
As long as you are gripping it, you are fearful. When you cease holding on to it, you can appreciate and enjoy it. Yes. If you are a miser, loss will make you even more miserable. Again, appreciation will help you not to be miserable about loss.