Perched on Mont Pèlerin, Switzerland, approximately 820m above sea-level and overlooking the Alps of Wallis and Savoy is Rabten Choeling, an institute for higher Tibetan Buddhist studies which houses a thriving monastic and lay community dedicated to the pursuit of Tibetan Buddhist practices.
Founded in 1975 by Venerable Geshe Rabten in line with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama’s specific request to Geshe Rabten around 1974, Rabten Choeling is one of the first Tibetan Buddhist monasteries to be established in the West after the exodus of Tibetans into India. Originally known as Tharpa Choeling, Centre d’Hautes etudes Tibetaines, it was subsequently renamed to Rabten Choeling in memory of Geshe Rabten.
Following the advice of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama for Geshe Rabten to move to Switzerland in order to set up schools with the aim of educating Western teachers, Geshe Rabten relocated to Switzerland to serve as the Abbot of Rikon Monastery in Tosstal. During this time, Geshe Rabten and a handful of monks lived in a rented house in the tiny hamlet of Schwendi, located 4km from Rikon Monastery.
Within the span of a year and a half after Geshe Rabten’s relocation to Switzerland, a more permanent centre, Tharpa Choeling, was subsequently set up at Le Colibri, a larger property in Mont Pèlerin, to cater to the growing number of students and practitioners drawn by Geshe Rabten’s teachings.
This move was the physical manifestation of the efforts and dedication of Geshe Rabten and his students, in particular a group of philanthropist-Buddhists from Geneva comprising businessmen and industrialists, referred to as the “Geneva Group”, headed by Anne Ansermet, the daughter of a famous Swiss conductor, Ernest.
The Geneva Group was largely responsible for financing the purchase of Le Colibri and also for funding the activities carried out by the institute which were instrumental in the efforts to spread Buddhism in the West. Such activities included the application of visas for Lamas to come and teach as well as the generation of funds for living expenses and resources.
It is not surprising that Geshe Rabten quickly gained a following of Western students. Not only was he a leading scholar at Sera Monastery, but he was also highly regarded as a great teacher. In fact, after fleeing Tibet into India, Geshe Rabten had settled down to a life of private meditation in the mountains above Dharamsala but his retreat was interrupted by a request from His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama to teach the growing number of Westerners who were streaming into Dharamsala. In addition, prior to his relocation to Switzerland, Geshe Rabten along with Kyabje Lati Rinpoche were appointed as the Dalai Lama’s advisors on philosophical matters.
Geshe Rabten was also renowned for his ability to elucidate Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy in a manner that resonated with the Western mind. Thus, he is credited as one of the pioneers in spreading Tibetan Buddhism in Western Europe, including spearheading the training of Westerners to become qualified Buddhist teachers in their own right.
One of the many great Lamas to grace Rabten Choeling was His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. In fact, it was in Rabten Choeling (or Tharpa Choeling as it was known then) that the Dalai Lama gave his first public teaching in the West, which took place in the summer of 1979 at the invitation of Geshe Rabten. According to records, Geshe Rabten placed Stephen Batchelor (one of his long time students) in charge of organising the visit and the Dalai Lama’s free public teaching with a total budget of 30,000 Swiss Francs. As the Dalai Lama was not widely known at that time, only about 900 attendees turned up despite intensive advertising.
Rabten Choeling was also host to His Holiness Kyabje Trijang Chocktrul Rinpoche during his younger days. Despite having moved to the USA and established Trijang Buddhist Institute in Vermont, Kyabje Trijang Chocktrul Rinpoche continues to maintain close ties with Rabten Choeling, especially with Tenzin Rabgya Rinpoche, the reincarnation of Geshe Rabten, and His Eminence Gonsar Rinpoche.
Upon the passing of Geshe Rabten in 1986, His Eminence Gonsar Rinpoche, Geshe Rabten’s closest disciple who served Geshe Rabten for 33 years, took over as the director of Rabten Choeling in order to continue Geshe Rabten’s works. It was Gonsar Rinpoche who advocated the renaming of Tharpa Choeling to Rabten Choeling in memory of Geshe Rabten.
Gonsar Rinpoche also led the search for Geshe Rabten’s incarnation, Tenzin Rabgya Rinpoche. Born in India in 1987, he now lives at Rabten Choeling under the care and tutelage of Gonsar Rinpoche. In the spring of 1998, the then ten-year-old Tenzin Rabgya Rinpoche gave his first teaching in front of 200 people in Rabten Choeling.
Today, the community of ordained and lay people residing in Rabten Choeling conduct prayer recitations twice a day, at 7am and 6pm, except during the weekends. Tsok offerings are also performed every fortnight according to the Tibetan calendar. In addition, the Sangha of Rabten Choeling perform daily prayers, monastic rites such as Sangha confessionals, summer retreats and monthly pujas in the centre.
Besides functioning as both a monastery and an international school with students from 14 different countries, Rabten Choeling is also open to the public. Guided tours combined with discussions on Buddhism, Tibet or meditation practices can be arranged and several guest rooms are available in the centre for retreats and for those interested to visit Rabten Choeling. In addition, general classes on meditation are held every Sunday and several public seminars are conducted throughout the year.
Please support us so that we can continue to bring you more Dharma: