Venerable Geshe Rabten Rinpoche was born in January 1920. As a young child, he was utterly fascinated by monks who were returning from the great monastic universities near Lhasa. In his biography “Life of a Tibetan Monk”, he expressed his admiration for these men of robes. His admiration was further fuelled by his personal experiences watching them in action during debates at the large monasteries where he occasionally visited.
At the age of 15, Geshe Rabten began to notice how simple, pure and efficient these monks’ lives were compared to his own. He recalled how his life at home was complicated and filled with unending tasks that never seemed to finish. With the aspiration to become a full-fledged monk in Dhargye Monastery, at the age of 17 Geshe Rabten decided to go to one of the monastic universities near Lhasa as one needed to spend at least three to four years studying the Dharma and training one’s mind to qualify as a monk at Dhargye Monastery.
When he was 18, Geshe Rabten travelled from his birthplace in Kham (in the Eastern province of Tibet) to Lhasa to fulfil his aspirations to become a monk. He enrolled in the famed Sera Monastic University, Lhasa to begin his monastic education. During his years in the monastery, he endured tremendous hardship while studying and meditating, earning himself the nickname “Milarepa” from his fellow students and teachers. Due to his prowess in debate, many compared him to Dharmakirti, the great Buddhist scholar of India.
After 20 years of study, the exceptional scholar and great debater Geshe Rabten passed his Geshe exams in the presence of monks from the three great monasteries. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and the examiners bestowed upon him the highest honour, the “Geshe Lharampa” title.
In 1964, Geshe Rabten was chosen to be the Dalai Lama’s Tsenshab (philosophical assistant). His tasks were to assist the Dalai Lama when receiving teachings from his two tutors and to debate with His Holiness on philosophical subjects.
Geshe Rabten also spent many years in solitary retreat. His book “Song of the Profound View” documents his experiences while in his long retreat in Dharamsala in the late 1960s.
In 1969, His Holiness the Dalai Lama sent the first Western students to Geshe Rabten. Later, as the number of Western students grew, Geshe Rabten was requested by His Holiness to move to a Tibetan monastery in Rikon, Switzerland and eventually became its abbot.
Geshe Rabten actually preferred to remain in India with his many students and his elderly root Guru, Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche. He did not have any interest in the comforts and money that the West had to offer.
However, when Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche pointed out that his teachings would bring great benefit to those in the West, Geshe Rabten agreed to go. His ability to deliver the essence of Buddhism helped those who followed his teachings gain clarity and calmness, and his example encouraged others to practise sincerely.
As the first Tibetan Buddhist master who introduced the complete Vinaya tradition and the study of the five major topics of Buddhism in the West, Geshe Rabten was hailed as a “ground breaker”. Many great masters who transmitted the teachings in the West were his students and they include Gonsar Rinpoche, Tomthog Rinpoche, Zopa Rinpoche, Lama Yeshe, Sherpa Rinpoche, Geshe Penpa, Geshe Tenzin Gonpo, Geshe Thubten Trinley and Geshe Thupten Ngawang.
In 1979, Geshe Rabten founded Tharpa Choeling, the Centre for Higher Tibetan Studies in Mont-Pèlerin, Switzerland (which was later renamed Rabten Choeling in his memory); Tashi Rabten in Feldkirch, Austria; the Tibetan centre Jangchub Choeling in Hamburg, Germany; the Phuntsok Rabten Association in Munich, Germany and Ghe Phel Ling in Milan, Italy.
In 1986 at the age of 66, Geshe Rabten entered clear light. Showing every sign of a highly accomplished master of Sutra and Tantra, even in death there were extraordinary signs that made his students realise that their Guru was not just a great teacher but an Enlightened one. During the months that followed his passing, some of his students reported experiencing Geshe-la’s unusual closeness during their meditations.
The Return of a Great Master
Three years later in 1989, Geshe Rabten’s dearest and closest disciple, Gonsar Rinpoche, found his reincarnation. Through a careful and complete series of consultations with various figures of authority and also His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Kelsang Tsering was recognised as the incarnation of Geshe Rabten Rinpoche from among 180 potential candidates. Kelsang Tsering is the son of Tenzin Dargye and Pasang Gyalmo.
Given the name Venerable Tenzin Rabgya Rinpoche, he is currently under the care and tutelage of Gonsar Rinpoche in Rabten Choeling. Exhibiting the signs of an extraordinary being, in the spring of 1998, the then ten-year-old Tenzin Rabgya Rinpoche gave his first teaching on taking refuge to two hundred people in Rabten Choeling. Just like his previous incarnation, he delivered his teaching in Geshe Rabten’s signature clear manner. The audience was deeply moved and many of his former students shed tears, realising that their great teacher had indeed returned.
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