“Gehlek’s book is lighthearted and down-to-earth.”
—The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“His teachings are helpful to all.”
—The Denver Post
“Insightful . . . Gehlek is a felicitous writer, especially gifted with analogy. Readers will cheer about this fresh voice.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Gehlek Rimpoche’s wisdom on life, death and reincarnation will focus your energies on the importance of coming to terms with your negative emotions. It will also help you travel well through life by practicing patience.”
—Spirituality & Health
“Gehlek Rimpoche’s mix of astute psychological insight, extraordinary intellect, and great compassion—plus his delightful wit—make him a wonderful, wise spiritual friend and guide.”
—Tara Bennett-Goleman, author of Emotional Alchemy, and Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence
“Gehlek Rimpoche is a heartfelt, tender teacher with a vast analytic mind.”
“Gehlek Rimpoche . . . is a great teacher.”
—Robert A. F. Thurman, professor of religion, Columbia University
“No clichés here. Just straight talk infused with humor, humility and a well-seasoned wisdom born of a broad classical training and worldly experience. His lineage is impeccable and true. His simple words speak to the jewel in our hearts.”
“Gehlek Rimpoche is one of the wisest, most cheerful people I know. He is a beautiful and gracious spirit who carries the great wisdom of Tibet. We are fortunate to have him teaching in the West.”
—Jack Kornfield, bestselling author of After the Ecstasy, the Laundry
Gehlek Rimpoche’s teaching is concise and soulful; here, tradition is saved only to strengthen the daily path of liberation. Answering Allen Ginsberg’s query, Rimpoche once observed that poetry is compassion. We may learn from Rimpoche’s writings that compassion is also poetry.”
“Gehlek Rimpoche is one of the great originals alive today—luminous in his wisdom, compassionate in his unstinting care and support, and a very funny man to boot. He is the Buddha nature in a warm and whimsical package.”
—Jean Houston, Ph.D.
“Probably the best available teacher of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. He combines a complete grasp of the teachings of this tradition with an openness and kindness that has endeared him to all those fortunate enough to have come to know him.”
“Gehlek Rimpoche is a brilliant scholar of Tibetan Buddhism. Educated in Tibet’s largest monastery—Drepung—he fled to India in 1959, and in the decades since, has become one of the most important and insightful teachers of Tibetan Buddhism in the West.”
—Melvyn C. Goldstein, John Reynolds Harkness Professor and Chair of Anthropology, and director, Center for Research on Tibet, Case Western Reserve University
“Gehlek Rimpoche was trained by the greatest teachers of the last generation of Buddhist masters in Tibet. He has brought their teachings to America, where he is passing on their wisdom to a new generation, with eloquence, wit, and insight.”
—Donald Lopez, Carl W. Belser Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies, University of Michigan
Reincarnation is something we Tibetans tend to take for granted. We are brought up with the idea that the kind of life we have now is a result of how we have behaved in the past, and that the kind of life we will live in the future depends on how we conduct ourselves now. I feel this is in many ways a very practical approach because it places firmly in our own hands responsibility for the kind of person we are now and the kind of person we may become. What’s more, it gives us a reason for making this very life as meaningful as possible. How should we go about doing this? I believe that cultivating compassion is one of the principal things that make our lives worthwhile. It is the source of all lasting happiness and joy. And it is the foundation of a good heart, the heart of one who acts out of a desire to help others.
Through kindness, through affection, through honesty, through truth, and through justice toward all others, we ensure our own benefit. This is not a matter for complicated theorizing. It is a matter of common sense. Consideration of others is worthwhile, because our happiness is inextricably bound up with the happiness of others. If society suffers, we ourselves suffer. And it is clear that the more our hearts and minds are afflicted with ill will, the more miserable we become. We cannot escape the necessity of love and compassion. As long as we have compassion for others and conduct ourselves with restraint—out of a sense of responsibility—there is no doubt we will be happy.
Of course, confidence in the way we have lived our lives is also one of the principal factors that will help us to remain calm and undisturbed at the time of death. The more we have made our lives meaningful, the less we will regret at the time of death. Therefore, the way we feel when we come to die is very much dependent on the way we have lived. If our daily life has been positive and meaningful, when the end comes, even though we do not wish for it, we will be able to accept it as a part of our life. We will have no regrets.
Nawang Gehlek Rimpoche has made these questions the theme of this book Good Life, Good Death. He is well qualified to discuss them. As a recognized reincarnate lama, he completed his traditional Buddhist training as a monk in Tibet prior to the Chinese takeover. In exile in India, he lived the life of a married man, doing valuable work in broadcasting and publishing Tibetan Buddhist texts. Since becoming an American resident, he has been able to put his clear understanding of the English language and the modern world to good effect when invited to teach about his own tradition. As this book makes clear, he is able to share some of the insights and benefits of the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism with modern readers in terms that they can easily understand and put into practice. I am sure that readers interested in the Tibetan approach to inner peace will find much here to attract and inspire them.
The Fourteenth Dalai Lama
June 16, 2001
Over the years, I have probably had more fun with Gehlek Rimpoche than with almost any lama I have known. Extremely bright and perceptive, he has a great sense of humor, and just loves to chat, whether in Tibetan or English. He is also very good-natured and generous to a fault, not minding at all when the joke’s on him. I have also learned a great deal from him, about all levels of the Buddha Dharma, which he lives and breathes. It’s in his mind as a philosophy, in his culture as a way of life, and in his blood as an art of living and dying well—that is, virtuously for the sake of others and pleasantly for his own sake.
Rimpoche was brought up in one of the most upper-crust families in Tibet, belonging to the family of the Great Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso (1876–1933), the “first family” of that era—sort of like the Roosevelts in America. His father was also an important reincarnation. In spite of his father’s effort to have Gehlek Rimpoche lead a more normal life, his son was recognized as the reincarnation of an important lama.
So at an early age, Gehlek Rimpoche had to leave his comfortable and stimulating home for the relatively harsh life of the formal training of an incarnate lama. As a novice monk, he underwent a rigorous intellectual, spiritual, and moral education. He had to spend long hours memorizing hundreds of pages of profound and difficult texts, almost hopelessly abstruse and boring for a young boy. If he failed in a particular day’s recitation, he would be soundly beaten, forced to stay awake and make up the lesson, though fortunately he was so intelligent, he could memorize over a dozen pages at a sitting, hundreds of verses, even though he didn’t know the meaning of most of them. He tells a story, backed up by schoolmates whom I also know, about how he used to frustrate his tutors by learning his verses so well that he could keep on reciting them accurately even while having fallen asleep, thus satisfying his memorization quota while also getting some rest. So upset that he was getting out of his duties, they made him recite while standing up on the windowsill of his third-story study room, thinking that the fear of falling would keep him awake. He responded by learning to sleep standing up, leaning slightly against the window frame. Finally, they had to back down for fear he really might fall.
During his late childhood and adolescence he began to learn the meaning of the library of teachings he had memorized, and he became the talk of his college—the Loseling College of Drepung monastery, with over ten thousand monks the largest monastic university in the world—for his quickness in penetration, sharpness in analytic debate, elegance in ritual performance, and depth of understanding. Tibetan monks normally do not engage in contemplation in groups, unlike Zen monks, but rather meditate in solitude in their own quarters, using meditation to complete the process of developing wisdom through broad learning by memorizing the root texts and studying the commentaries with a teacher, and then debating with classmates in fiercely competitive formal analysis to bring out the deeper meanings. Rimpoche was a terror on the debating court, and thus he advanced through the stages of his studies with remarkable speed.
He also soon became the protégé of some of the most important lamas of the day, particularly Lingtsang and Trijang Rimpoches, the senior and junior tutors of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who were most eminently qualified to transmit the esoteric precepts and innermost contemplative empowerments of the advanced Vajrayana teachings.
There is no question that Gehlek Rimpoche received the best education possible in his time and circumstances: the rod was not spared and he was not spoiled. He totally excelled in all his studies and practices and graduated in record time. He also did have a little bit of down-time at home with his family, and since his father was not only a member of high society but also a notable psychic and even a kind of oracle, he got to know all the important people in Lhasa during the forties and fifties and so knew something about the world of Tibet and its society, including all the wrenching changes that were taking place due to the invasion of the communist Chinese during the years leading up to the 1959 escape of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
In 1959, Rimpoche’s world was shattered. The communist Chinese became impatient with maintaining the pretense of compromising their principles to accommodate a Buddhist culture, society, and government and made a grab for total control. Hundreds of thousands of Tibetans were massacred and imprisoned, the Dalai Lama and many of his key monastic and lay officials escaped, monasteries were destroyed, many monks died by gunfire, and many more perished in the wilderness during the arduous crossing of the Himalayas while fleeing into exile into India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sikkim. Like the Dalai Lama, Rimpoche had barely graduated when he nearly lost his life. He did, indeed, lose his monastery, many of his teachers and classmates, his family, his society, his country, his most cherished possessions, and his entire Tibetan Buddhist civilization. It would be hard to imagine a more powerful lesson in impermanence, suffering, and alienation.
After many adventures of escape, relocation, and establishing himself in exile along with a hundred thousand other Tibetan refugees, Rimpoche rebelled against his whole former lifestyle. He resigned his monk’s vows. He married. He visited America and learned English well, and then took a job in a big city, New Delhi, capital of the newly independent India. He also took up responsibility for his devastated country, going to work for Tibet House in New Delhi, H. H. the Dalai Lama’s initial cultural center, established in order to catch and preserve some of the seeds of Tibetan civilization that were being scattered on the winds of history. He entered a new phase of his education, learning about the larger world, about Indians and Westerners, about Hindus and Christians and Jews, and secular humanists and atheists. He learned about all these people by being one among them, a refugee with no special status. He became a man of the world—though privately, in spite of the many doubts that arose due to the utter catastrophe his world had suffered, he maintained his practices.
I began to get to know Rimpoche during this period. I was a year or two younger, a New Yorker who had had plenty of fun in prep school and college, and I was already married once, with a young daughter. I was rebelling in the opposite direction and had become a wandering philosopher and seeker of enlightenment. Unaware of the full horror of what was going on in Tibet, I was immersing myself in Tibet-in-exile, becoming a monk, beginning a much lesser version of the education Rimpoche had just finished. Going in opposite directions, we had an immediate rapport. During the various phases of my progress forth and back through the ’60s and ’70s in Delhi and America, Rimpoche was always kind, generous, knowledgeable, and helpful to me. My main teachers were his main teachers, and so I didn’t really see him as a teacher in those days. Then from the late ’70s, when I got to spend more time in India doing research into the Vajrayana yogas, I began to study with Rimpoche directly, and my appreciation of his depth increased immensely. He knew everything I wanted to know, and yet he maintained a worldly, friendly relationship, explaining things not only from his classical education but also from his experience in the world. His teachers, especially Lingtsang Rimpoche, had begun to push him again, to urge him to take up his responsibilities as a Dharma teacher. I was impressed by how highly they regarded him, and so I invited him to teach in America, at our little Institute of Buddhist Studies in Amherst, Massachusetts, and other places. Having received formal teachings from his teachers—some of the greatest lamas of the previous generation—I can truly say that Rimpoche carries their message in a complete and authentic way, and, even more interesting, he enfolds it in an envelope of contemporary savvy, from his wide experience of people from all over the world, knowing where they’re coming from, what they want, and what they need.