Described as “one of the last living Tibetan Buddhist masters to have been trained in Tibet” before the events of 1959, His Eminence Geshe Tsultim Gyeltsen, affectionately known as Geshe-la, was one of the few highly learned senior monks who managed to escape Tibet, out of the 20,000 monks who had lived at Gaden, Sera and Drepung, Tibet’s three largest monasteries.
Geshe Tsultim Gyeltsen or Jamphel Yeshe (as originally named by his parents) was born in 1924 in the Kham province of eastern Tibet. At an early age, Geshe-la was very much inspired by the example of his uncle who was a monk at the local monastery and with the blessings of his family, he entered monastic life at the tender age of seven. Geshe-la studied Sutra and Tantra, and received teachings on dialectics for nine years under the tutelage of Geshe Jampa Thaye, a highly respected teacher from Sera Monastery.
Geshe-la’s passion and diligence in pursuit of the Dharma saw him set out on a 33-day trek across 25 mountain passes at the age of 16, as the sole monk in a party of 15 merchants and pilgrims to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet with the aim to further his studies and earn his Geshe degree at Sera Monastery. The Geshe degree in the Gelug School is comparable to a western doctorate in Buddhist philosophy, albeit the Geshe degree has a longer timeline for completion, usually taking more than 20 years.
However, an invitation to Gaden Monastery for tea during a pit-stop near Lhasa led to a monumental change in Geshe-la’s direction. In essence, as Geshe-la climbed the hill toward Gaden Monastery, he saw the great monastery for the first time, almost touching the sky. Overwhelmed and deeply moved, he wept tears of joy and knew without question that it was here, and not Sera, where he would continue his studies. In addition, that particular day was the anniversary of Lama Tsongkhapa’s Enlightenment and the spiritual atmosphere infused with the illumination of light from butterlamp offerings and the sound of chanting filling every room in the monastery further strengthened his resolve to be part of Gaden.
Thus, Geshe-la secured himself a place in Shartse College, one of Gaden’s two monastic colleges where he studied logic, wisdom, compassion, ethics, phenomenology and mind training for 20 years, and later became a teacher of junior monks. The abbot at that time was the late His Holiness Kyabje Zong Rinpoche who took a special interest in Geshe-la’s progress.
Upon receiving news that His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama had left Tibet following the Tibetan Uprising of 10 March 1959, Geshe-la and a group of six other monks left Gaden Monastery after evening prayers and made their way to India across the Himalayas, forming part of the mass exodus that fled the oppression of the Communist occupation.
Geshe-la, with 50 of the most highly regarded monks from each monastery, resettled at Dalhousie in northern India where he studied for two more years at Gyutö Tantric College before taking his final Geshe examinations. In Dharamsala, after engaging in rigorous debates under the scrutiny of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and his two tutors, the late Kyabje Ling Rinpoche and the late Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche, not only did Geshe-la pass the Geshe examinations with honours but was also awarded the highest degree of Lharampa Geshe.
In 1963, Geshe-la travelled to Sussex, England to teach at the Pestalozzi International Children’s Village. He arrived with 22 Tibetan children who were mostly orphans or the children of parents still living in Tibet. For seven years Geshe-la instructed these children in Tibetan writing, grammar, culture and Buddhist philosophy.
Geshe-la relocated to the United States in 1976 and briefly held positions at USC, UC Santa Barbara, and at UCLA where he taught meditation and Tibetan language. His erudite teachings attracted many, including his university students who requested that he start a teaching centre. In 1978, Geshe-la founded a centre for the study of Buddhism in Los Angeles which was given the name Thubten Dhargye Ling, which means “Land of Flourishing Dharma” by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama at Geshe-la’s request.
Geshe Tsultim Gyeltsen is very well known as an erudite Dharma teacher. His numerous efforts to propagate the Dharma include:
- Composing invaluable Dharma books such as Compassion: The Key to Great Awakening, a commentary on the Eight Verses of Mind Training and the Thirty-seven Practices of a Bodhisattva, and a free book on emptiness, titled Mirror of Wisdom.
- Founding more Dharma centres in both Colorado and Texas.
- His involvement in the Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California, a group of representatives from various Buddhist countries dedicated to further understanding between Buddhist cultures.
- Actively working for human rights and true autonomy for the Tibetan people. One of his goals was to further education and religious study in Tibetan communities throughout India.
Geshe-la entered clear light on 13 February 2009 and many Lamas attested to the numerous extraordinary events as well as significance of the same pertaining to Geshe-la’s passing. Some of these extraordinary events, which shows that Geshe-la was a very realised and accomplished being, include:
- The great rainbow that formed just as Geshe-la left his clear light meditation.
- Geshe-la’s holy body remained perfect without deterioration for three days and three hours during his clear light meditation. Staying in clear light for a relatively short time indicates a quicker rebirth.
- Geshe-la’s holy body was preserved throughout the long flight to India despite the heat.
- The monks who prepared the holy body discovered that it had become smaller and was pliable enough to set in the lotus position. They found it very remarkable considering the long period of transportation.
- There were very few obstacles, mistakes, or problems arising to interfere with the funeral proceedings. It all went almost perfectly.
- The first wisps of smoke drifted to the West and slightly North, and was considered a clue to the direction in which to find Geshe-la’s next incarnation.
- When the “Fire House” was opened, it was witnessed that Geshe-la had left what was described as an extremely rare and exceptional type of relic. Among the fragments was a formation known as the “eye, tongue, and heart”, associated with the body, speech, and mind. Again, this is considered a sign of very high spiritual accomplishments.
- Upon the sand mandala at the base of the Fire House, the ritual master discerned a small footprint formation that also led in the Northwest direction. He interpreted this to mean that Geshe-la would be reborn soon and in a direction Northwest of Gaden Monastery.
- A few days later, Ven. Kyabje Lati Rinpoche mentioned, in a humorous way, that this might mean Geshe-la would be born in America.
Geshe-la’s strength of vision and devotion to his practice transcended time and culture, and he continues to inspire his students with the legacy he brought from Tibet.
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