Tibetan Lamas

Geshe is a Buddhist academic degree for scholars, requiring about twenty years of study. The geshe degree is a scholarly degree and should not be confused with the spiritual function of a “lama”; a lama is a person with spiritual insights which allow him or her to spiritually guide disciples. A geshe, on the other hand, is a keeper of the Buddhist knowledge. [Wikipedia]

I hate to admit how this got started, but when I was a freshman in college at Purdue in 1962, I read a book by a “Tibetan Lama” named Lobsang Rampa. He turned out to be a plumber from Scotland writing channeled misinformation about Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. Still, I was enthralled with Tibet and read what other books I could find. There wasn’t much information about Tibet available in the early 60’s, though I enjoyed reading a number of books about India, including my favorites, The Mountain is Young by Han Suyin and The Far Pavilions. Deep in my heart, I formed a wish to meet a real Tibetan lama. Living in the American Midwest, I did not think that much of a possibility.

It is interesting to experience how wishes are granted as one journeys through life. In 1982 and 1983, I went on retreats at Bethany Springs, a retreat house close by Our Lady of Gethsemane monastery near Bardstown, Kentucky. One of the monks who had lived at Gethsemane was Thomas Merton, the famous writer and peace activist, who in 1968 journeyed to Darmsala, India, to visit the young Dalai Lama, who had escaped in 1959 from the Communist Chinese takeover of Tibet. In his Asian Journal, Merton wrote about his arduous trek to northern India and his profound meetings with HH, the Dalai Lama. The two, speaking through translators, found a common bond, and one meeting turned into several. Merton died of an accidental electrocution a couple of weeks later in Bangkok, Thailand, but he had set in motion a dialogue between Buddhist and Christian monks that continues to this day.

In his sophomore year at The College of William and Mary, my oldest son Jim took a class in Buddhism. He then returned home at the end of the semester and swiped my entire shelf of books on Buddhism. I was gratified to have my child become interested in a particular interest of my own, though he has still not returned the books. Jim then discovered he could study Tibetan through Indiana University’s outstanding foreign language department. He subsequently discovered a “gift” in the ability to read and translate Tibetan and later Sanskrit. Before he graduated from IU with a degree in Religious Studies, he met a lama named Geshe Sopa, who was the Director of Buddhist Studies at the University of Wisconsin. Eventually, Jim went to live and then to study with Geshe Sopa, earning his Ph.D in Buddhist studies from the University of Wisconsin in 2001.

While Jim was a student at IU, I attended some functions at the Tibetan Cultural Center and met [receiving line kind of meeting] the Dalai Lama’s brother, Thubten Jigme Norbu, Buddhist monk, professor of Central Eurasian Studies, oldest brother of the XIVth Dalai Lama, and the 26th reincarnation of Takster Rinpoche. I read his autobiography,Tibet is My Country, which whetted further interest. I was fascinated with the ancient Tibetan beliefs, including the idea of Rinpoches, “precious ones” who incarnate again and again into the same position. According to Tibetan beliefs, the Takster Rinpoche, Professor Norbu, had incarnated 26 times as the abbot of the Kumbum monastery. How amazing to be a reincarnated lama, to be discovered while the child of a peasant as the incarnation of a high lama, and to be educated at the highest level at an important monastery, to have inherited the wealth and position of abbot, to escape from Tibet with the help of the CIA, and to end up as a professor at a university in the Midwestern United States.

Of course, Jim knew of my desire to speak with a Tibetan lama, so in 1993, when he was living at Deer Park, Geshe Sopa’s home near Madison, Wisconsin, he arranged for me to have an audience with Geshe Sopa. One does not just sit down for a chat, I discovered. When I arrived at Deer Park after an eight hour drive from Salem, I was ushered into the kitchen where four monks were making tsampa—butter sculptures made of salted tea, yak butter, and toasted barley flour. These sculptures are especially made for the December Butter Lamp Festival. When I saw what they were making, I said “tsampa,” which brought delighted smiles to their faces—-probably from my mispronunciation. I was visiting during Thanksgiving weekend and they were deep into preparation for the coming festival; the table and counter were lined with small sculptures. I later learned that one of the young monks was a rinpoche and the old monk was a high lama named Geshe Topgay.

Soon, I was escorted into Geshe Sopa’s presence; he received me formally, in monk’s robes, seated cross-legged on a platform in his room. The platform, about five feet high, was draped in crimson silk and colorful thangkas with gold embroidery. I had the disconcerting feeling of being in another time and another place. After I had bowed a greeting, he kindly asked me to sit and inquired about what I wanted to know. I was overwhelmed and could not think of anything to ask but finally managed a question about how he escaped from Tibet. I am sure that is not a question with which to use a high lama’s time, but he told me about his journey over the Himalayan mountains four months after the Dalai Lama’s, a frightening, hunger-filled journey through the high mountain passes. Then I asked him about the Neuchung Oracle, Dorje Drak-den (Nechung), the principal protector divinity of the Tibetan government and the Dalai Lama (see History of Nechung Monastery), the one who told the Dalai Lama he must leave Tibet and named the places on the path of the safe journey to India. The Dalai Lama explained this oracle’s directions in his autobiography Freedom in Exile. Again, this was an unexpected question, but Geshe Sopa responded by explaining. Slowly, I relaxed and he began to question me about my beliefs. I think he grasped that my knowledge and thoughts were very fragmented. He began to tell me the basic teachings and tenets of Buddhism, speaking gently and kindly. Eventually, Jim helped me back away from his presence and leave the room properly, still facing Geshe Sopa. I remember being dazed the rest of the evening. I met Geshe Sopa several times after that and he was always smiling and cordial. I have never forgotten that profound hour in his presence—a dream fulfilled and a true honor for me to be in the presence of this holy man.